Tag Archives: historical fiction

The War to End All Wars Comes Home

“If the living are to be of any use in the world, they must always break faith with the dead.”

—-Vera Brittain

An exerpt from The Ways of Mud and Bone

Meryl Goodson disliked wearing black, though the color suited her well enough. Too well, perhaps. Putting on a black dress meant putting on a mood, and the more often one wore a mood the harder it was to take off.

Over a hundred people crowded the church, their heads bowed in prayer or sufferance. White roses decorated each pew and overflowed from urns flanking either side of the altar. Their perfume grew stronger in the cloistered space, as if they drew power from the priest’s Latin intonations. In a framed photograph propped on an easel, a dark-haired young man in a tuxedo stood in front of a grand piano, his hands clasped behind his back. He gazed to his left with a lazy, almost indolent grin. Meryl’s cousin Nora had been on the receiving end of that smile. It had been taken the evening of the couple’s engagement party nine months before. October 15, 1917. What now remained of Theodore Pauling Jr. rested in a U.S. Army cemetery twenty miles outside of Paris.

After Teddy’s memorial service, the mourners gathered at the Pauling home, a sixteen-room Victorian on River View Drive. The house sat on five manicured acres with flower gardens and croquet lawn. Meryl had never felt at ease with the place. As she walked up the drive leading to the house, the atmosphere seemed to shift. The mild summer air turned thick, stifling, even in the shade of the great oaks and elms presiding over the approach like an honor guard.

A maid let the visitors into the foyer, a closed-in space made dimmer by heavy wood paneling. Meryl entered the main parlor with her father and her sister Claire. Doc Goodson at once went over to Teddy’s father Theo. The two women hung back.

“I’ll pass out before the end of this, you wait and see.” Claire fanned herself with one of her gloves.

“We’re not staying long.” Meryl walked to a set of French doors and opened them a crack. The drapes to left of the doors trembled. She pushed the fabric aside, revealing a small, tear-stained face. “Millie? What are you doing?”

Thirteen-year-old Millie Pauling stood with the stiff resignation of a child determined not to act like a child. It worked until Meryl threw her arms around the girl. Millie fell against her, her thin-boned frame convulsing. Across the room, a door opened. Ida Pauling emerged from the smaller back parlor. Seeing her mother, Millie let go of Meryl and retreated to the sofa, her tears condensing into short, painful breaths.

Ida drifted toward them in yards of black silk, the ruffle at her neck ornamented with an oval of polished jet. “Only two Goodson girls? I take it Nora’s still unwell.”

“Nora didn’t really have a breakdown, did she?” Millie asked.

Claire stroked the child’s shoulder. “She’ll be all right.”

 

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.

Buy The Ways of Mud and Bone

Death & Dominion by Carol Hedges

In this third murder mystery starring Victorian-era London detectives Stride & Cully, a case of arsenic poisoning becomes something much more sinister.

Death & Dominion: A Victorian Sensation Novel

Death & Dominion: A Victorian Sensation Novel

One thing that amazes me about this series is how Carol Hedges manages to set her novels firmly in their time and place and still give each book a twist that makes it completely unique. For DIAMONDS & DUST (my review), that means a scary, otherworldly flavor. HONOUR & OBEY (my review) out-Dickens Dickens in its realistic lens on the social and economic inequities of the era, while at the same time setting loose a gruesome serial killer who would make Jack The Ripper tremble in admiration. This time around the author dips her pen into the Victorian “sensation” novel, with its domestic melodrama, smooth-talking con-men, and cunning acts of revenge.

The plot of DEATH & DOMINION seems straight-forward at first–murder by arsenic poisoning–but things get complicated as the bodies multiply and useful leads lay thin on the ground. Detectives Stride & Cully, still the favorite prey of the local gutter press, are stonewalled by some of London’s most genteel ladies and gentlemen, who have more to hide than most courtesans–including our favorite ex-madam, Lilith Marks. Her cameo appearance is one of my favorite things about the book. I also enjoyed the Belinda Kite subplot. This “lady’s companion” with a murky past is a great mix of vulnerability and daring. She and the handsome trickster Mark Hawksley are a perfect match. Awful as they are (well, as awful he is and she would LIKE to be) I found myself rooting for them.

Hedges does a wonderful job exposing the seedy underbelly of Victorian propriety, especially when it comes to marriage and fidelity. I followed with morbid fascination the icy home life of Frederick and Georgiana Undershaft. Georgiana’s situation and her personal quandary–what does a good wife have the right to expect from her husband–remained with me long after I finished the book.

I will say that the wrap up of both the main plot and the sub-plot left me a little dissatisfied. Here I need to take care not to ruin it for you. Let’s say that both main parties get what they deserve, though the means of this “rough justice” is highly melodramatic. Now, this fits right in with the conventions of the Sensation Novel–soap opera at its finest. I can appreciate this, but being a modern reader, I would have preferred a more extended and character-driven wrap up.

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.