2014 Historical Fiction Challenge Wrap-up

And finally, I completed the 2014 Historical Fiction Challenge at Historical Tapestry.

2014 historical fiction challenge
Participants were asked to read historical fiction from any subgenre: YA, romance, mystery, and fantasy were all fair game. I chose the Ancient History level, which set a goal of 25 books, and here’s what I read:

1. Mary Miley — The Impersonator
2. Julia Quinn — Just Like Heaven
3. Elizabeth Hay — Late Nights on Air
4. Alan Bradley — The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
5. Georgette Heyer — The Spanish Bride
6. Ellis Peters — The Raven in the Foregate
7. Elizabeth Blackwell — While Beauty Slept
8. Kathryn Miller Haines — The Girl Is Murder
9. Hannah March — The Complaint of the Dove
10. Kate Quinn — Mistress of Rome
11. Lauren Owen — The Quick
12. Ismail Kadare — Broken April
13. Sharon Kay Penman — The Sunne in Splendour
14. Juliet Marillier — Blade of Fortriu
15. Jessica Brockmole — Letters from Skye
16. Elizabeth Wein — Rose Under Fire
17. William Ritter — Jackaby
18. Robin LaFevers — Mortal Heart
19. Lauren Willig — That Summer
20. Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon — No Bed for Bacon
21. Rhys Bowen — Naughty in Nice
22. Baroness Orczy — I Will Repay
23. Sara Gruen — Water for Elephants
24. Jennifer Robson — Somewhere in France
25. Carlos Ruiz ZafĂłn — The Shadow of the Wind
26. Lauren Willig — The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla
27. Ashley Weaver — Murder at the Brightwell
28. Shusaku Endo — Silence
29. Roberto Ampuero — The Neruda Case
30. Diane Setterfield — Bellman & Black
31. Kate Lord Brown — The Beauty Chorus
32. Anthony Doerr — All the Light We Cannot See
33. Rose Lerner — In for a Penny
34. Charles Finch — The Laws of Murder
35. Rhys Bowen — The Twelve Clues of Christmas
36. Kate Ross — The Devil in Music

As always, check out my Review Index page for more info on any of these books. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, so it’s always fun to give myself an excuse to read it! 🙂

Review: The Devil in Music

Devil in Music, TheKate Ross, The Devil in Music

This final installment of the Julian Kestrel series moves from England to Italy, as Julian encounters a five-year-old mystery while traveling on the Continent. Lodovico Malvezzi, a powerful Milanese nobleman, was murdered in 1821, but because of the unstable political situation at the time, the local officials covered up the true cause of his death. Now, in 1825, the truth has finally come out, and the police are once more searching for Lodovico’s killer. The most likely suspect is a young tenor called Orfeo, whom Lodovico had been training for a career in opera and who disappeared shortly after the murder. But Lodovico had kept the singer’s real name a secret, and no one can give a clear description of him to the police. Meanwhile, Julian suspects that Orfeo may not be the guilty party, and he begins to investigate Lodovico’s family, including his fascinating young widow, Beatrice, and his politically involved brother, Carlo. He soon discovers several motives for Lodovico’s murder — but secrets from Julian’s own past will emerge before he can unmask the killer.

As previously mentioned, this is the last book in the Julian Kestrel series, and I’m heartbroken to have come to the end of it! I absolutely love historical fiction, mysteries, and anything set in the Regency period, so this series is really the perfect fit for me. Plus, I’m a sucker for a dandy who is more than he appears to be, which is definitely the case with Julian! That said, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book specifically. The different setting was interesting, and I enjoyed the little bits of background about Italian politics and opera that permeate the book. I also liked the resolution of the mystery, although certain aspects of it were very predictable. The book’s pacing is also a little slow, and the focus of the book is much more on Julian’s character development than on the plot. While I was glad to see some more exploration of his character, it didn’t altogether satisfy me. I think my issue is the romance between Julian and Beatrice, which just didn’t ring true for me. Still, this is a good book in a great series, and I really wish there were more Julian Kestrel mysteries!

Review: The Twelve Clues of Christmas

Twelve Clues of Christmas, TheRhys Bowen, The Twelve Clues of Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but Lady Georgiana Rannoch is anticipating a bleak, joyless Christmas at her brother’s estate in Scotland. Her sister-in-law Fig has made it abundantly clear that Georgie is an unwelcome burden, so Georgie begins to search for a way to escape for the holidays. Finally, the perfect solution lands in her lap: she is offered a job as social hostess for a large house party at an English country estate. Georgie jumps at the chance to get away from Fig (and make a little money in the process), especially when she learns that her mother will also be staying in the neighborhood. When Georgie arrives at the estate, she discovers that her employer is trying to stage the perfect English Christmas for a diverse group of paying guests. But the seemingly idyllic country village is soon plagued by a string of suspicious deaths. All of them appear to be accidents, but Georgie suspects that they could be murders. But what do the dead people have in common, and who in the village would be clever and ruthless enough to kill them?

I enjoyed this latest installment of the Royal Spyness series. It has all the fluffy fun of previous books, but the mystery is a bit more substantial compared to some of Georgie’s earlier adventures. I’ve always liked the series for its frothy tone and historical trappings, especially Georgie’s run-ins with real historial figures (for example, Noel Coward makes an appearance in this book!). But historically, the mystery plots themselves have been relatively weak. This one was more complex, with several different plot threads that all tied together in the end. Georgie’s personal life also progresses a bit in this installment, as she and Darcy finally profess their love for each other and begin to talk about marriage. I always want more Darcy in these books…he seems to come in for the sole purpose of ruthlessly kissing Georgie in corridors, but there are hints that he’s also involved in some sort of espionage. I’d love him to marry Georgie and take her along on his adventures! The series seems due for some sort of shake-up, and I’m interested to see whether the status quo will change in future installments.

Review: The Laws of Murder

Laws of Murder, TheCharles Finch, The Laws of Murder

Victorian gentleman Charles Lenox has given up his seat in Parliament to return to his true vocation as a detective. He’s even started a detective agency with his friend John Dallington, former rival Polly Buchanan, and a talented Frenchman called LeMaire. Though the business is new, Lenox is confident that it will succeed; but a streak of bad publicity in the London newspapers causes trouble for the fledgling enterprise. Just when Lenox is considering throwing in the towel, however, an unexpected murder forces the police to seek out his services — for the victim is none other than Inspector Jenkins of Scotland Yard. Moreover, Jenkins’ body was found outside the town house of the Marquess of Wakefield, one of London’s most hardened (yet so far uncatchable) criminals. Was Jenkins investigating Wakefield when he met his death? Was Wakefield himself the killer? Lenox and his fellow detectives are on the case, but the conspiracy they uncover is more shocking than they ever could have imagined.

I like this series a lot, and this book is another good installment; but I have to confess, one month later, it’s hard for me to remember much about it! I do recall thinking that the mystery was a little predictable, but there were certainly enough twists and turns to keep me interested. The book also takes time to check in with the various secondary characters who comprise Lenox’s world, which I appreciated — although I would have liked to see even more of McConnell, Lady Jane, and the others! I also think it was a smart move to make Lenox part of a detective agency, as this introduces some new characters and relationships into the mix. The agency also illustrates some interesting areas of blindness in Lenox, especially regarding class. When the business begins to fail, Lenox is upset, but he is never in danger of experiencing real financial hardship. Some of his colleagues, however, depend on the agency for their livelihood, and this doesn’t occur to Lenox initially. So I appreciate that we got a little character growth in this installment, and I look forward to the next book!

Review: In for a Penny

In for a PennyRose Lerner, In for a Penny

The young Lord Nevinstoke, known to his friends as Nev, loves nothing more than a good time, whether it’s drinking with his friends or dallying with his mistress. But when his father dies unexpectedly, Nev suddenly inherits the responsibility of being head of the family, as well as a mountain of crushing debt. With a large estate to repair and no money for the task, his only choice is to marry a rich woman, and heiress Penelope Brown fits the bill nicely. Since Penelope’s father is a tradesman, she is not of Nev’s class, but her money seems a fair trade for his title. Nev and Penelope marry quickly, but despite their growing attraction to each other, they encounter many obstacles. Nev’s estate is in even worse shape than he thought, and he has no knowledge of business matters. His tenants have grown increasingly discontented as the estate has become less prosperous. And meanwhile, Penelope feels uprooted from everything familiar and thrust into a place where she doesn’t belong. Will Nev and Penelope be able to solve these problems and finally find happiness together?

I enjoy a good Regency romance every once in a while, and I’d read that this one is the next best thing to Georgette Heyer. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do think the book is very well written and often entertaining. I enjoy the “marriage of convenience turns into something more” trope, so I was predisposed to like the plot, and I also liked both Nev and Penelope as characters. Specifically, I was a big fan of how Nev grows and changes throughout the book. He starts out as a careless young man — albeit a likable one — who lives entirely for pleasure. But when he is confronted with his responsibilities for the first time, he takes them seriously and tries to learn all he can. I also sympathized with Penelope quite a bit, as she experiences a lot of insecurity when she marries “above” herself. I did get annoyed at all the misunderstandings between her and Nev, though; every time it seemed like they were finally on the same page, one of them would second-guess the relationship for no good reason. There was also a lot more, ahem, “romance” than I was expecting. But overall, as Regency romances go, this is a fairly enjoyable one.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

This sprawling novel tells the stories of two children growing up on opposite sides of World War II. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who is a locksmith working for the Museum of Natural History. She has been blind since the age of six, so her father has built a tiny replica of the city for her to memorize. But Marie-Laure is uprooted from these familiar surroundings when the Germans invade Paris and she has to flee to her great-uncle’s house on Saint-Malo. Meanwhile, Werner is a German orphan whose knack for fixing radios changes the course of his life. Instead of being doomed to a life of coal mining, he is chosen to attend a school where he will be trained as a Hitler Youth. Werner soon learns that the school is grueling and brutal, a place where weakness is mercilessly punished. But his desire to become a scientist, combined with fear for his own safety, keeps him silent. Werner’s story eventually converges with Marie-Laure’s in 1944, when the Germans are trying to hold Saint-Malo against an Allied invasion.

I was eager to read this novel after seeing several rave reviews, but unfortunately I have mixed feelings about it. I didn’t particularly like the novel’s structure, which constantly moves between Werner’s story and Marie-Laure’s, as well as jumping back and forth in time. Every time I got invested in one storyline, the book would jump to something else, which was frustrating. Also, there’s not a whole lot of plot in the book; it’s more a very detailed depiction of everyday life on both sides of WWII. That’s interesting in its own right, but I often became impatient with the meticulous descriptive language, especially when it came at the expense of the story. On the other hand, I’m very impressed with the character of Werner in this book. It’s easy (and justifiably so) to paint the Nazis as pure villains, but Werner manages to be a complex character whose motives are usually better than his actions. It helps that both he and Marie-Laure are children throughout most of the book, which makes them more sympathetic. Overall, I do think the novel is worth reading, but I’m glad I got it from the library rather than buying it.

Review: The Beauty Chorus

Beauty Chorus, TheKate Lord Brown, The Beauty Chorus

This novel centers around three female pilots who join the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes back and forth between Allied bases during World War II. Evie Chase is a headstrong young debutante who enjoys her life of privilege but wants to “do her bit” for the war effort — and escape from her odious stepmother. Stella Grainger is struggling with being separated from her baby boy, whom she’s sent to her husband’s parents in Ireland. And Megan Jones, a 17-year-old Welsh girl, wants nothing more than to keep her family’s farm running and to marry her sweetheart, Bill. These three young women couldn’t be more different, but when they join the ATA and become roommates, they form an extremely close bond. Together they deal with the challenges of flying different aircraft, the discrimination they face for being women in a man’s world, and the joys and sorrows of wartime love affairs. But despite their strength and determination, they can never quite escape the brutal realities of war.

This is a book I really wanted to love. The story has so much going for it — WWII, female pilots, romance, and even a little espionage! — but unfortunately, I was disappointed. The biggest problem for me was the clunky writing style; for example, on one occasion, the author drops a character name into the story before introducing that character. I had to flip backward to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed his entrance, but in fact, it was just a confusing way to introduce the new character. There’s also a lot of head-hopping in the book; not only does the point of view shift between the three girls (which would be understandable), but there are random paragraphs from the perspectives of their suitors and various other minor characters. Finally, while I liked the main characters in theory, they never really rose above clichĂ©s. For example, Evie is a typical HF heroine: incredibly beautiful, naturally talented as a flyer, and implausibly far ahead of her time. Overall, while the book certainly wasn’t a slog, I can’t say I’d recommend it either.

Review: Bellman & Black

Bellman & BlackDiane Setterfield, Bellman & Black

This atmospheric novel tells the story of William Bellman, who makes one decision in childhood that will alter the entire course of his life. When he is ten years old, he and a few friends are playing in the field near their village, and they see a rook on a far-off tree branch. Will bets his friends that he can hit the bird with his slingshot, and to everyone’s astonishment, he actually does it. Will and his friends soon forget the incident, but from then on, rooks become a touchstone and a bad omen for William Bellman. As he gets older, he becomes more and more successful: first he get a job at his uncle’s mill, then rises through the ranks until he eventually runs it. He marries and has children, and he begins to make a very comfortable living. But when an illness sweeps through the village and takes most of William’s family, he will do anything to save his remaining daughter — including making a desperate deal with the mysterious Mr. Black. William’s encounter with Black leads him to an entirely different business venture, one that eventually threatens to consume him.

I absolutely loved Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I’m coming away from it with mixed feelings. The writing style is just as rich and gorgeous as I remember, and I found myself reading very quickly despite the slow-moving plot. I also admire the novel’s atmosphere of suspense; it has a wonderfully autumnal, sinister quality, despite the fact that not a lot of scary stuff actually happens. In fact, that may be my biggest problem with the book: there’s this great buildup of tension throughout the novel, but in the end there’s no payoff. The interludes about rooks — and William’s encounters with them throughout the book — are meant to heighten the suspense, I think, but I didn’t really understand their role in the story. Frankly, I was a bit confused about the story as a whole; I was expecting a Faustian narrative in which William essentially sells his soul for success, but that’s not really what happens. In short, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book — but I’m definitely not giving up on Setterfield yet!

Review: The Neruda Case

Neruda Case, TheRoberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case (trans. Carolina De Robertis)

Cayetano BrulĂ©, one of the most respected private investigators in ValparaĂ­so, is on his way to meet a prospective client when he stops at a restaurant for lunch. When he opens the menu, he sees a photograph of Pablo Neruda and immediately recalls his first case as a detective, in which his client was the Nobel laureate himself. Suddenly it’s 1973, and Cayetano (a Cuban by birth) is somewhat adrift in his adopted homeland of Chile. At a political party with his wife, Cayetano meets Neruda for the first time, and they soon strike up a conversation. Later, Neruda invites Cayetano to his home and makes a surprising request: he wants Cayetano to find a missing person, a doctor whom Neruda knew many years ago. Cayetano’s search takes him to Mexico City, Havana, and even East Berlin, and he eventually learns that Neruda’s desire to find the doctor is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, Chile is also experiencing a period of upheaval, as Salvador Allende’s Marxist government is succeeded by the dictatorship of Pinochet.

This novel attempts to do many different things, with mixed results. As a mystery, I think it falls flat; there is no real urgency to Cayetano’s search, and the results of his investigation ultimately don’t matter very much to the story. The book is more successful at painting a portrait of Pablo Neruda at the end of his life. I feel like I got a sense of his personality and his importance to Chile as a political figure. Best of all, this book does a wonderful job of depicting the political situation in Chile at the time and relating it to the wider issue of global politics. It’s no coincidence that Cayetano mostly visits Communist countries, in an era dominated by the Cold War and the ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The novel is definitely not neutral on this subject; both Cayetano and Neruda favor Allende’s government, while Cayetano condemns his wife’s more radical Communism. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting much more than I was by the story. So I’m glad I read this book, but I won’t be seeking out any more installments of the series.

Review: Silence

SilenceShusaku Endo, Silence (trans. William Johnston)

This novel is set in 17th-century Japan, at a time when Christianity has been outlawed, and Christians are imprisoned and tortured so that they will renounce their faith. Nevertheless, various missionary groups from Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, continue to arrive in Japan in hopes of spreading the Christian religion there. One such missionary is Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who believes that God is calling him to minister to His church in Japan. Rodrigues also hopes to find his former teacher and mentor, Father Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced Christianity and adopted a traditional Japanese lifestyle. When Rodrigues arrives in Japan, his enthusiasm for his mission slowly declines as he sees Christian peasants being tortured and executed for their faith. For the first time, he experiences serious doubts in the face of God’s silence: if He exists, why does He allow his faithful disciples to suffer? As Rodrigues struggles with this question, he must eventually decide whether his faith is truly worth defending at any cost.

This book is laser-focused on a single issue: God’s silence in the face of suffering, and the implications of that for a person of faith. If this is an issue that interests you at all, I would definitely recommend this book! The writing style is sparse and direct, enhancing the nature of the stark choice that confronts Sebastian Rodrigues. The character’s struggle really rang true for me, and there are certainly no easy answers in this book. For me the most compelling character was Kichijiro, the Japanese guide who shelters Father Rodrigues and his companions but later betrays them. He is a weak, pathetic, utterly despicable character, yet Rodrigues comments that “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt….” In sum, this book isn’t a particularly fun or quick read, but I think it’s an important one for anyone interested in questions of faith or in the clash between Western religion and Eastern culture.