Friday, August 24, 2012

Partial to the Past: Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop

As a lover of all things historical fiction, I'm excited to be taking part in the Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop being hosted by Holly over at Bippity Boppity Book.  

The winner of my portion of the hop will have a choice of one of the following three fabulous books as their prize:

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman; 
Katherine by Anya Seton; or
The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

Rules & Entry Details:

(1) The Hop will be open from August 24th until midnight on August 30th.  
(2) My portion of the hop is open to Canadian and U.S. residents only.
(3) To enter, please leave a comment below with your email address.   While you aren't required to be a follower of my blog, new followers are always welcome :-) 
(4) The winner will be selected using and will be contacted by me via email to obtain mailing details and choice of book.

Good Luck!

Be sure to check out all the other stops on the Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mini Book Reviews

I hope this post finds everyone enjoying their summer (or winter for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere).  While I've managed to get a lot of reading done so far this summer, I admit that I haven't been all that inspired to write lengthy reviews. Nevertheless, as I would still like to share my thoughts on a number of the books I've read over the past few months, I have prepared mini reviews for them. 

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

4.5 Stars

Historical author Michelle Moran's first novel, Nefertiti, is a fictionalized account of the life of the infamous Egyptian Queen.  Told from the perspective of Nefertiti's younger sister, Mutnodjmet, Moran's lovely prose brings ancient Egypt to life and evokes a strong sense of time and place.   It also features fabulous characters, a strong plot and great historical detail, all of which are necessary for me to consider a novel a great work of historical fiction.   Given that Nefertiti's behaviour, attitude and actions make her a hard character to amass any sympathy for, the decision to use her sister as the means through which to recount Nefertiti's life was the right one.    

Hereward by James Wilde

3.5 Stars

The focus of this novel authored by James Wilde is on the title character, an English outlaw and hero, and his companion, a young monk named Alric.  The novel takes place primarily in England in the years immediately before and after the Norman Conquest.  Although an outlaw, Hereward fights first to prevent, and then to end, Norman occupation of England.  Although it took me the better part of the novel before I warmed towards Hereward, who is portrayed as rather violent and angry, by the story's end I at least started to appreciate why he is considered an English hero.  While Hereward's narrative is the principal focus of this book, the story does alternate between Hereward's life and that of life at the courts of English King's Edward Wessex and Harold Godwinson.  While I found the narrative switches to, at times, interrupt the flow of the story, I nevertheless appreciated the inclusion of life at court as it was used to help explain the political situation of the time period in which the novel is set.   Although at times a little too violent for my tastes, I did enjoy the novel overall and would recommend it to historical fiction readers interested in the Conquest period of English history.   Hereward's journey continues in Hereward: The Devil's Army

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

2.5 Stars

While this novel started out strongly, my enjoyment of it lessened the further I advanced in the story.   Set a few years after the end of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley features a murder on the grounds of the Pemberley estate; a murder that involves Elizabeth Darcy's sister Lydia and brother-in-law, Wickham.   While I think P.D. James does an admirable job of capturing Austen's voice and tone, especially early in the novel, the endless repetition of plot points becomes tedious even before the novel's half-way mark.   Furthermore, even though the accused murderer is believed innocent by the Darcy's, their family and their acquaintances, for a novel billed as a mystery I found it odd that there is absolutely no effort made by the key characters to determine who the actual murderer is.   Rather, the focus seems to be on how the accused murderer's link to the Darcy's will forever change their lives and reputation, essentially destroying their idyllic life.  If this was the case, why didn't the Darcy's do whatever they could to solve the murder and absolve the accused?  Their lack of interest in doing so, combined with their increasingly morose and melancholy moods neither felt right, nor felt consistent with the original characterizations of Austen's beloved hero and heroine. 

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

4.5 Stars

Theft of Swords, the first installment in Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations fantasy series, is a must read for fans of the fantasy genre.  At the centre of the story are thief Royce Melborn and mercenary Hadrian Blackwater, who, while in the process of trying to steal a sword, are accused of murdering a king.  Lured into a trap in order to cover up treachery at the highest levels, Royce and Hadrian receive help from a most unexpected source and, as a result, set off on an adventure quite unlike any they have experienced before. With a relatively straightforward plot and a manageable cast of characters that doesn't leave the reader wondering who's who, Theft of Swords is a highly readable and entertaining fantasy novel, one that I found difficult to put down.  Sullivan has created not only an interesting world, but also a fabulous cast of characters.  In fact, it took only the first few chapters for Royce and Hadrian to become two of my favourite characters in all of fiction.   When I finished the novel I immediately picked up the second installment in the series, Rise of Empire, as I  had to know what happened next.   On the whole I think this novel will appeal to fans of both simple and more complex epic fantasy. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

In a small Bihari village, Captain William T. Meadows finds just the man to further his phrenological research back home: Amir Ali, confessed member of the infamous Thugee cult. With tales of a murderous youth redeemed, Ali gains passage to England, his villainously shaped skull there to be studied. Only Ali knows just how embroidered his story is, so when a killer begins depriving London’s underclass of their heads, suspicion naturally falls on the “thug.” With help from fellow immigrants led by a shrewd Punjabi woman, Ali journeys deep into a hostile city in an attempt to save himself and end the gruesome murders.

Ranging from skull-lined mansions to underground tunnels a ghostly people call home, The Thing about Thugs is a feat of imagination to rival Wilkie Collins or Michael Chabon. Short-listed for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, this sly Victorian role reversal marks the arrival of a compelling new Indian novelist to North America.

My Review

3 Stars

Tabish Khair's The Thing About Thugs is a fast-moving tale set predominantly in Victorian England.   The novel's protaganist is a young Indian man, Amir Ali, who spins tales of his involvement with India's notorious Thugee cult to a British scientist, Captain Meadows, who is recovering from illness in Amir's village.  Fascinated by both Amir's tale and his claim to now being reformed, Captain Meadows invites Amir back to England so he can write about his experiences.  While in England, Amir becomes engaged not only in Captain Meadows' world, but also those of the English working class and various other colonials who find themselves in England.   When a wave of grisly beheadings grips London, suspicion quickly falls on Amir, whose supposed involvement with the Thugee cult has citizens - who don't believe he is reformed - assuming he is capable of committing horrific crimes.   Can Amir and his friends convince London that, contrary to popular belief, he is not responsible for the murders? 

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  While I found both the story and the characters fascinating, the narrative technique employed by Khair to tell this tale did not work for me and had a significant impact on my rating.   Told from several different perspectives, including that of a man in the modern day, the constant shifts in perspective interrupted the story's flow and were often times, especially early in the novel, confusing.  Nevertheless, Khair has created some memorable characters in this novel and, through his often eloquent prose, he vividly brings to life some of the seedier aspects of Victorian London.  In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed how Khair wove the 'science' of phrenology, which was quite popular during the Victorian era, into the narrative.  Despite my difficulty with the style in which this novel is written, it will not deter me from reading other novels by this author.   

Note: I received a copy of The Thing About Thugs from the publisher as part of the novel's TLC book tour.  This in no way influenced my views on the novel. 

About the Author

Tabish Khair is an award-winning poet, journalist, critic, educator and novelist. A citizen of India, he lives in Denmark and teaches literature at Aarhus University.

You can visit the author's webpage by clicking on this link:

The Thing About Thugs is currently on tour with TLC.   Click here to check out the tour schedule and find links to other reviews.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review Bundle: Charles Todd's Bess Crawford Mysteries

My Review:

After having read the fourth novel in Charles Todd's Bess Crawford mystery series, An Unmarked Grave (click here to read my review), I then proceeded to read the first three novels in the series - A Duty to the Dead, An Impartial Witness, and A Bitter Truth.  Given the similarities between each of the three novels I've decided to bundle them together into one review. 

Set in England and at various casualty clearing stations near the front lines during the Great War, the heroine of this series is young English battlefield nurse Bess Crawford.  The only child of a famed British Army Colonel, Bess becomes a nursing sister in an effort to do her part to help the war effort.  But nursing is not the only thing Bess finds herself engaged in during the War, as she also becomes involved in trying to solve the mysterious deaths of several people whose lives, in one way or another, intersect with her own. 

In A Duty to the Dead, Bess is entrusted with delivering Lieutenant Arthur Graham's last message to his family.  While the young officer was administered to by Bess on the hospital ship Britannic, the two became close.  After recovering from injuries sustained during the sinking of the Britannic, Bess is finally able to deliver Lieutenant Graham's message.  As Lieutenant Graham had impressed upon Bess that the message was of the utmost importance to convey, she is surprised by his family's indifferent reaction.  Disappointed and curious at the family's reaction, Bess sets out to discover the message's full meaning by delving into the lives of the Graham family.   In so doing she unearths long buried family secrets, placing her own life in jeopardy in the process. 

In the series second novel, An Impartial Witness, Bess finds herself caught up in another family drama when she witnesses the wife of one of her recent patients tearfully embracing another man at a train station.  When the woman is found murdered the following day, Bess realizes she might be one of the last people to have seen the woman alive and thereby becomes involved with the investigation; a situation that once again puts her life in danger.  

In the series' third novel, A Bitter Truth, Bess finds herself helping an unknown young woman who shows up on her London doorstep after having been abused by her husband.   In her attempt to help the young woman, however, Bess ends up getting pulled into a murder investigation involving the woman's family, an investigation in which everyone is a possible suspect, including Bess herself.  

One of the series' greatest strengths is the Todd's (a mother/son writing team) ability to create a strong sense of time and place.  As a result, the books are able to successfully convey the experiences of the nursing sisters stationed near the front lines at various casualty clearing centres, as well as both the anxieties and carry-on attitudes of those back home.  Bess Crawford is a well-drawn heroine, one for whom it is easy for readers to like.   She's smart, determined and committed to helping others, even if it is not always in her own best interest to do so.  Along the way she is helped by both her father, retired Colonel Crawford, and longtime family friend Simon Brandon, a man who started out his army career as Colonel Crawford's batman before rising through the ranks to become the Regimental Sergeant Major.   It is to Simon that Bess most often turns when she needs advice, support and information to help her solve the investigations she becomes involved in.  While Simon is not a romantic interest for Bess, the way Todd develops their relationship over the course of the series has me wondering if, ultimately, this is where their relationship is headed.  I for one hope this to be the case.  As for the mystery featured in each of three novels, I found them to be both well-developed and plausible.   Further, for this reader at least, their ultimate resolutions were not obvious until the closing pages. 
Overall, the first three Bess Crawford mysteries are well thought out and engaging novels.  I recommend them to all fans of the historical mystery genre, as well as to readers interested in historical fiction set during World War I. 

Note: The first two Bess Crawford mysteries come from my own personal collection.   The third was provided to me by the publisher as a thank you for reviewing An Unmarked Grave and I was not under any obligation to review it.