Category Archives: Fiction-Historical

Review: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR KNIGHT

*author provided a copy of the book for review.

A beautiful young widow suspected of murdering her elderly husband is forced by the King of England into marriage to a hot-blooded knight determined to discover the truth.

How To Train Your Knight: A Medieval Romance

How To Train Your Knight: A Medieval Romance

Alden starts this medieval romance with a bang. Sir Marcus Blackwell has ordered his second in command to drag Lady Ann down to their wedding naked if he has to. She isn’t quite naked when Thomas D’Agostine accomplished his mission, but she is bound, bruised, and wearing underclothes that leave little to the imagination. She’s also not the hag, Marcus expected.

Marcus is also something of a surprise to Lady Ann. Having been brutalized by her first husband, who died under bloody and unexplained circumstances, she expects a sadistic monster who will likely have her hanged as soon as the wedding is consummated. Even if he doesn’t, she figures he’ll just take her land and breed her for heirs like some sow. The nickname that followed him home from the crusades–The Beast of Thornhill–doesn’t help.

Getting past these initial mistaken impressions of one another is a huge endeavor, and it’s not even the biggest obstacle they face. England in 1276 is a lethal environment. There’s a church infested with evil men hungry for two things: gold and witches to burn. For Lady Ann the former is likely to lead to the latter. When the local bishop isn’t causing trouble, there’s Ann’s half-witted sheep-stealing neighbor eager to align himself with Marcus’s villainous father. And to top it all off, every time Marcus uncovers one of his complicated wife’s secrets, there are two or three more to contend with. And that’s not counting the Venetian glassblower.

The period details are well chosen to immerse us in the setting without burying us there. Marcus and Ann share enough genuine chemistry to make up for the overwrought fits of temper they each indulge in now and again. Lady Ann is vulnerable, frightened and yet has an iron core. Sir Marcus is a generally honorable guy in search of a little peace and domesticity after years of bloodletting on foreign battlefields. We want them to trust each other, and it kills us that every step forward on that score is followed by two steps back. But that’s what keeps us turning the pages.

I did find a couple of rough transitions. Most are minor. One was majorly irritating. On one of the occasions when Marcus is following Ann to learn more about her wicked ways, they end up at a mysterious cottage. Then the scene is over and we don’t find out until later that he witnessed her in an amazing knife fighting training session with another woman. We should have BEEN there, seeing it with him. Not listening to him confront her about it later. Sure, we get some good details, but it’s all second hand.

There’s a lot of physical violence toward Lady Ann. When it’s a villain knocking her around, I can accept it as part of the story. That behavior from Sir Marcus and Thomas D’Agostine, even if Ann’s being difficult, made me think less of them. Yes, it was a brutal time period. But both men should have been above such reactions. I think true chivalry would’ve demanded it, even if it took every ounce of control in the men’s bodies. In my experience, a hero with hand problems only works in those mega-long bodice rippers, where the reformed hero has enough time to erase our memory of the creep. My opinion of Marcus managed to survive. But Thomas left me annoyed and wishing the Turks had succeeded in gutting him.

On the whole, though, if you like passionate, emotionally charged historical romance, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR KNIGHT is the book for you.

Review: WHISPER IN THE BLOOD

See a more detailed video review of this book HERE

Family saga about Italian and Irish immigrants who settle the Chicago area in the early part of the 20th century.

Whisper in the Blood

Whisper in the Blood

WHISPERS IN THE BLOOD covers the time period 1909 to 1947 and centers on two families. The Italian Savios are headed by Vito and Maria. They have seven children. The youngest, Francesca, is the one who figures most as times goes on. The Irish Callahans–Meghan, Michael and their son Finn are the other central family.

Meghan is a fascinating character. Born and raised in Ireland, she has a long family history of Druidism and uses her “powers” to manipulate those around her. She focuses her efforts mostly on her husband–she has grand political ambitions for him.

There’s plenty of tension in the book. There’s Ethnic tension–the Irish and Italians look down on one another. When they meet, violent confrontation normally ensues. There’s generational tension between immigrant parents and their children born in America. There are also neighborhood conflicts. Friendships and alliances are often based on social pressure or economic necessity, such as Vito Savio getting involved with “The Outfit” (the organized crime element in the area) after one of his sons makes a bad choice.

Inevitably, Italian Juliet (Francesca) meets her Iris Romeo (Finn) and things get really exciting. The couple doesn’t have an easy road. Will they get their HEA? Well, there’s still the second half of the century to get through.

Montgomery gives readers lots of story. She covers her 40-year time period seamlessly. There are many characters and they are all given attention in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or forced.

There’s a wonderful flavor of Old Chicago. Al Capone days. The music. The small historical details that pull you into the world of the book.

WHISPER IN THE BLOOD is a complex and absorbing family drama. Highly recommended for lovers of fiction with an early modern focus.

Review: POETS CAN’T SING

In Post-WW II San Francisco, wounded servicemen struggle to heal their physical and emotional scars and find comfort in an often unkind world.

Poets Can't Sing

Poets Can’t Sing

There is a standard (and rather annoying) convention that “historical fiction” refers to narratives set before 1900. That might have worked fine in 1940 or 1960 or even 1990. Today, though, this rule of thumb is more suffocating than useful. POET’S CAN’T SING is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Firmly set in its period, it captures the flavor of that particular moment–a time when public pride over a hard-won victory too often overshadowed the personal suffering of those who made this victory possible.

Earl, Brooks, and Ivory have all been left shattered by their war experience. They cross paths at a veterans’ hospital run by corrupt administrator Victor Mann and his psychotic orderly, Elroy. As Mann pretends not to notice, Elroy uses intimidation, blackmail, and violence to control the patients and staff. The only individuals not under his thumb are Nurse Stella Tate and Henry Akita, a Japanese-American former army medic, now an orderly. Despite Elroy’s menacing presence, Stella and Henry are determined to do what they can for the men under their care. They use Earl’s and Brooks’s musical talents to get these two blind men to both reengage with the world and to help other patients.

The author’s writing is top notch. He moves seamlessly from point-of-view to point-of-view and from past to present. We get to know his characters in all their messy humanity. Smith does a great job showing us the profound sadness that lives in the gap between what these men intended to be and what life and the war has made of them. We watch as they struggle to get better and be better in spite of their own self-destructive tendencies and the cruelty and incompetence of those around them.

There’s a good dose of humor to balance out the darker scenes. Which is good, because Elroy is like a cancer that spreads from chapter to chapter. I don’t know that I could have dealt with him all the way to the end if not for Earl and Brooks’s amusing interaction. As for the resolution, things take an interesting turn for the main character after their time at the hospital. Yet the question of whether such damaged souls as Earl, Brooks, and Ivory can ever learn to live with their scars and build decent, worthwhile lives is left open.

POETS CAN’T SING is an absorbing and emotional work of literary-historical fiction.

Amazing Example of the Character-Driven Mystery Novel

Love, friendship, and murder in Victorian London.

Honour & Obey

Honour & Obey

I loved DIAMONDS & DUST and now Carol Hedges gives us another sooty tour-de-force full of superb historical detail and intricate subplots.

D.I. Leo Stride, assisted by the normally unflappable D.S. Jack Cully, has a serious problem on his hands. There’s a serial killer loose in London. Young women, most with some link to what in Manhattan would be called “the garment district”, are found with their throats cut and other, more telling, mutilations. Stride’s investigation is hampered on several fronts. The killer leaves little evidence behind. Possible witnesses are reluctant to talk. And the gutter press, in their longstanding mission to insult and humiliate the police force, pull pranks that lead to floods of useless “tips” and false confessions.

Though the murder provides the book’s main plot, several complex subplots add romance, humor, and drama. There’s the growing attraction between D.S. Cully and one of his witnesses–Emily Benet. And the darkly comedic situation of Hyacinth Clout, a young woman from a well-off family whose entire young life has been clouded by tragedy that took place when she was only six years old. These characters and many others go about their daily business largely unaware of their connections to one another and to the ongoing murder case.

Hedges has a knack for creating complicated characters with mixed motives. Somehow she’s fixed it so that their names and occupations and temperaments pay homage to that quintessential Victorian storyteller Charles Dickens without turning them into “stock” characters. Instead, each is unique and engaging. Their situations plunge us into the world of contradictions that is late 19th-century London, where sparkling privilege and gnawing poverty co-exist, often within steps of each other.

There are only two points where the author and I part company. First, I’m on the fence about the “disappearance” of Emily Benet. Yes, it gives D.S. Cully a kick in the pants and increases the sense of urgency as the strands of the murder mystery come together. But dragging such a strong character offstage at a pivotal point in the narrative seems a waste. When we learn who carried her off, it’s something of a let down…a non-event.

My second quibble has to do with the resolution of the murder itself. I won’t go into too much detail, but it left me feeling annoyed on D.I. Stride’s behalf. He deserved more personal and professional satisfaction than he got.

On the whole, though, this is a truly gorgeous novel. If you enjoy meaty narratives driven by fascinating characters, you will love HONOUR & OBEY.

A Beautiful Balance

A carefree gentleman saves a little boy and falls for his mother, a young widow with a troubled past and well-guarded heart.

Learning to Waltz

Learning to Waltz

The characters in this historical romance are well drawn and engaging. Deborah Moore is an intriguing mix of vulnerability and vinegar. Her hard shell is so complete and convincing that there were times when I wanted to shake her, but she’s also so sympathetic that you can’t help but lover her. Evan Haverfield is an attractive hero…honest, honorable…but not so “romance book” perfect that he doesn’t get frustrated with Deborah and question his own intentions in pursuing her.

The secondary characters are just as well done, each a realistic mix of strengths and weaknesses. Julian is a lovable kid, but he gets cranky and demanding. Evan’s sisters are devoted to his happiness, but they make sure to thoroughly investigate Deborah. Especially Elizabeth, who turns out to be something of a fairy godmother.

The plot is full of unexpected twists, some of which turn the expected historical romance formula on its head. What stands out most for me is how the author manages to transport us back to Regency England without over romanticizing the era. The historical detail is perfectly balanced. We get the stately homes and sparkling house parties…and the realities of class prejudice, poverty, limited medical care, and imperfect hygiene.

If there is one criticism I have, it is that the section where Evan, overcome by melancholy, travels the countryside goes on a little longer than necessary. That said, the end of this travelling takes him to Deborah’s hometown, where he encounters her family. These scenes are some of the best in the book.

LEARNING TO WALTZ is an engrossing novel with tension that keeps the reader frantically turning the pages. By not trying to make either her characters or their time too “pretty,” author Kerryn Reid creates a truly beautiful and moving experience. I’m very much looking forward to her next novel.

A Moment of Shameless Self-Promotion

It’s CyberMonday, which means there are some crazy good deals to be had online. The Kindle version of my WW I-era novel The Ways of Mud and Bone is on sale for 67% off the retail. It’s also a featured deal on Choosybookworm.

The Ways of Mud and Bone

The Ways of Mud and Bone

$2.99 $0.99

By Carrie Ann Lahain

In the summer of 1918, as the Great War rages in Europe, nineteen-year-old Meryl Goodson’s
small-town life is shattered when her cousin Nora’s fiancé is killed in France. The tragedy causes a rift in the community between those for the war and those against it. As local tensions rise, Meryl begins her service with an overseas relief unit. Caught up in her own brutal day-to-day struggle in war-weary France, she is unaware of how far matters have deteriorated at home. The truth leaves her broken and grieving. Is the world she once knew gone forever? Or can the friendships she’s made help Meryl find the strength to begin again?

A bit like LITTLE WOMEN meets ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, THE WAYS OF MUD AND BONE is a uniquely American book about the war to end all wars.

– See more at: http://choosybookworm.com/product/the-ways-of-mud-and-bone/#sthash.AZ5oHa6I.dpuf

A Complex and Lyrical Historical Mystery: A Review of THE AQUATIC LABYRINTH by Alastair Fontana

Fair warning: this exquisitely plotted historical murder mystery is as much a philosophical meditation as it is a Whodunit. THE AQUATIC LABYRINTH takes us on a tour of (let’s call it) “17th” century Venice in all its beauty, grotesqueness, grandeur and depravity. Author Alastair Fontana populates his fictional world with historical figures from a range of time periods, which might annoy certain purists, but for me made the reality he creates waver like the sun on the Mediterranean. This liquidity fits nicely with the shifting alliances and tangled motives at the bottom of the murders of two public figures with diametrically opposed political affiliations.

The Aquatic Labyrinth: A Venetian Mystery

The Aquatic Labyrinth: A Venetian Mystery

Our hero is Jacopo, an outsider from his very conception. His mother was Italian, but his father was an English sailor and therefore not allowed to live in Venice. Though very much in love, the couple spent their lives mostly apart. Jacopo is now a sailor himself. He comes back to Venice to see his sister and meet his future brother-in-law. Matters go awry when the brother-in-law discovers a ceremonial dagger in the street. Only later, as he and Jacopo go to return it, do they notice the dead body of the man they will be accused of murdering. Though Jacopo initially escapes, he refuses to flee the city until he can clear the name of his brother-in-law, now imprisoned and facing torture and execution. Helping Jacopo are a collection of characters taken from every level of Venice’s complicated and highly stratified society.

Fontana does a wonderful job building complex, believable characters. Both his male and female creations are set firmly in their particular social strata and yet given such rich inner lives that they stand out as individuals. It is this attention to human detail that made me stick with the story when things went off on more theoretical and philosophical tangents.

The author offers a huge amount of historical detail in the course of his narrative. At the beginning of the book, when I was still feeling my way around and trying to get situated in Fontana’s world, I found the period descriptions and explanations a little heavy-handed. As the plot unfolded, however, detail and context melded together almost seamlessly. The novel’s roving point of view also took some time to become used to. On top of repeated shifts from first to third person, there’s an omniscient voice
that seems to be constantly present, watching and commenting. Yet, once I was used to it, I could see how well the multiple voices reflected the complexity of the setting and the characters.The Venice of this novel is one city and many cities. It is both a place AND an idea.

I loved Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and THE AQUATIC LABYRINTH has similar depth and resonance. It is well worth having to look up a definition or literary allusion here and there to enjoy such an engrossing experience.