Category Archives: Historical

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

Napoleon has abdicated and the Continent is at last safe for Jane and Vincent to chance a honeymoon in Belgium. The two are glamourists, magical illusionists who can create living scenes at will and cause people to disappear in a bubble of invisibility. The French-Belgian world is more open and more intrigue-filled than anything Jane is accustomed to but she quickly resuscitates her shabby French and tries to understand why her husband seems to be hiding something from her. Glamour in Glass is a fantasy set in the language and era of Jane Austen by Mary Robinette Kowal, who goes to some lengths to excise most words that wouldn’t have existed in Austen’s day.

Newlywed Jane is not as accomplished as David but she is the one who comes up with the idea to trap a glamour in glass, inventing a bauble which does magic, although the beta model only works in direct sunlight. It also takes so much energy from her that she falls ill and is nauseous and exhausted for days. Meanwhile Vincent rides out to meet with clients daily without Jane and she is frantic to know what is going on.  As the reason for her illness becomes clear, she makes a shocking discovery about the man she married and the dangerous secret he has kept from her.

And then Napoleon escapes captivity and marches back to Paris and Brits Jane and Vincent are trapped in political intrigue and betrayal, a torturous captivity and a life-threatening bid for escape.  The whole glamour thing is so unusual that it takes some energy on the part of the reader to maintain the illusion. But Glamour in Glass is worth the work. It’s a terrific story with a few surprising twists and turns, characters who behave uncharacteristically to add surprises to the plot and reasonably accurate enough history to be convincing. Good book. Odd but good  idea. Kowal published a well-received prequel to this adventure and it’s probably worth hunting for so I’ll put it on my non-urgent library list for the day when I have the time to read purely for pleasure and escape again.

Glamour in Glass   Mary Robinette Kowal | Tor Books   2012

Scandal on Rincon Hill – Shirley Tallman

Scandal on Rincon Hill is a period murder mystery but I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller as one book review did. Shirley Tallman creates a heroine who is an anomaly in nineteenth century San Francisco, a young woman fervently dedicated to her profession as an attorney with the support of her family, more or less. The “less” is her mother’s heartfelt desire to see her married and settled. But Sarah Woolson has determined that, as married women are the property of their husbands (legally, really!) and not free to develop their own careers, marriage is a state she can never afford. Nonetheless, she is ardently pursued by two very attractive and persistent polar opposites throughout her adventures.

Sarah seems to be operating a one-woman legal services clinic–her clients are prostitutes and indigent Chinese laborers, fresh off the boat. She moves without too much propriety through the seedier back alleys of San Francisco, popping in and out of upscale bawdy houses, disreputable newspaper offices and murder scenes at will. When a scientist is brutally murdered just blocks from her home in a “good” neighborhood, the tabloids go berserk. Then another, similar murder happens and the police are hellbent to pin the crimes on someone and stop the public panic. The two murders appear to be related, although no one can connect them to a killer. And then two young Chinese immigrants are arrested and framed for the crime.

Meanwhile Sarah gets involved with a beautiful “kept” woman who has been dumped on the street by her prominent married lover, despite a signed contract that he will support her. She and her cherubic infant take up residence in the city’s fanciest bordello and she approaches Sarah to represent her in a suit against the ex-lover. The boss of the Chinese tong, well-known to Sarah, takes an interest in the fate of the Chinese suspects who seem destined for a lynch mob. Sarah is spotted going into the bordello by an unscrupulous reporter who writes about her indiscretion in a lurid tabloid. A slick, besotted shipping magnate, a hunk naturally, returns from Hong Kong to pursue Sarah. Her former colleague–less smooth, equally besotted–lurks around, scowling. Her beloved brother is still pretending to be a law clerk but really establishing a major reputation as a fearless crime reporter, unbeknownst to their father, the judge. It’s complicated. And the murders aren’t over yet.

Pretty good light reading–some nice historical detail and some conversational ticks that seem a bit mannered. Sarah is extremely aware of acceptable convention and rather pushy and that isn’t always believable in her corseted society.  The characters aren’t too deeply imagined but the stereotypes hold up if you don’t expect too much. The resolution is sudden and neater than I could cheer about–can’t really see it coming, even after it happens. But decent escapist mystery, no real thrills, characters to follow but not really root for. Pure genre, not high art but not bad.

Scandal on Rincon Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery (Sarah Woolson Mysteries)   Shirley Tallman | St. Martin’s Press   2010

Gawain and the Green Knight – Mark Shannon and David Shannon

I’m familiar with David Shannon’s hilarious, evil “David” books. No David! is the first of those and they star a bad little boy whose exuberance keeps him in hot water and his mother on repeat admonishing “No!” It’s so easy to see how this kid goes off the rails every time he moves that it is perfectly safe to read and enjoy the books with a kid–David is such a mess that even children can laugh at the trouble he gets himself into. So, I was curious to read a different sort of Shannon book, a collaboration between David Shannon, artist, and his brother Mark, writer, on one of King Arthur’s tales. Gawain and the Green Knight is for a slightly older but still unsophisticated crowd. The story of Gawain, the youngest of the Knights of the Round Table–and something of a kid brother–simplifies the rich world of Celtic myth and legend into a one-note quest that proves steadfastness and courage.

The illustrations are rich but rather dark. I liked the touch of ending a white text page with a small woven tapestry (painted) that depicts another visual element of the words on that page. Gawain is hesitant and tongue-tied until he impulsively takes the challenge of a mysterious Green Knight who appears in the midst of Arthur’s warriors. The knight is enormous and wagers that a man brave enough to strike him with an ax will not prevail. Being knights, only honor is at stake–the challenge is just yuletide sport. Being males, pointless violent stunts are irresistible, so the wager is on. Naturally, there is a catch. Gawain chops off the knight’s head and the knight picks it up and booms out the penalty. Gawain will have to travel to his Green Chapel and allow the knight his counter blow.

Complications, in the form of a fair lady who embroiders Gawain a protective sash and a magical couple and castle where Gawain spends the night before riding to the Green Chapel, allow Gawain to show his true mettle. It’s very high-minded with almost no blood and the good guys triumph in the end. Arthurian stories are marvelous and I would never hesitate to put one in front of a kid but I don’t know how much this one would captivate. I found it a little flat–possibly a chivalrous small boy would think it was exciting and cool.  Not a hapless mini-disaster-area like David Shannon’s anti-hero David, though. Put Gawain and the Green Knight in front of him and he’d probably spill purple grape juice all over it.

Gawain and Green Knight   Mark Shannon & David Shannon | G. P. Putnam’s Sons   1994

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic might as easily be named The Book of Lists. Julie Otsuka inscribes a library of research into a slim volume that is almost poetic in its evocative spareness. She tells the story of the Japanese “picture brides” who traveled by ship to the West coast at the turn of the last century to marry men who had sent handsome photographs and eloquent letters–not written by them and not depicting them. Reality was harsh. The sea voyage was hard to endure; their husbands were field workers, twenty years older than the photos, someone else entirely, house servants, not bankers. Their new homes were sacks in sheds at the edges of farms where they picked in the fields all day. Or bare bones servants’ lodgings at the back of the house or in one of the out buildings. Their wedding nights were closer to rape than romance; their lives were exhausting, unending labor. They washed and ironed in laundries, cooked and served in restaurants, escaped from brutal husbands to find work in the bawdy houses in California’s cities, filled the sleeves of their wedding kimonos with stones and waded into the Pacific.

The whole immigrant experience is encapsulated in words that make a slide show of images and impressions. Children are born, live or not, acculturate, lose the customs and the language, turn away from their families to become Americans. And then World War II comes, and Pearl Harbor, and the infamous reception centers are set up and the neat, hard-won homes, the established restaurants, the quiet, orderly presence of the Japanese is suddenly erased. The outrage in this book is palpable. In saying very little, it says everything. Line-by-line, layer-by-layer, Julie Otsuka builds a world of hope, despair, persistence, achievement and overnight devastation. When I first learned about the Japanese concentration camps in this country, many years after my “American history” courses in school, I was appalled. But it seemed so distant, so unimaginably backward, an aberration I couldn’t really comprehend. The Buddha in the Attic makes the whole ragged struggle of being an immigrant visceral, the deportation of an entire ethnic group to internment camps vivid and unforgivable.

It won’t take too many hours to read this small book but the high-definition cinema of its story will stay in your head for a long time.

The Buddha in the Attic   Julie Otsuka | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

The Book of Madness and Cures – Regina O’Melveny

In Renaissance Venice, a brilliant and unusual young woman is the only female doctor permitted to practice. She is the companion, research assistant and student of her father, himself a renowned physician. Gabriella Mondini is passionate about her healing work and the knowledge she and her father are assembling into his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases, a compendium of everything known about medicinal plants, highly imaginative cures, folk remedies, bezoars and other medical marvels. And then her father disappears.

The Book of Madness and Cures is Gabriella’s search for her elusive father and for her own identity. He has been journeying for some unspecified purpose for ten years, writing to her sporadically from various university towns in Italy, Scotland, Morocco and then vanishing. Soon enough, without the sponsorship of her famous father, the physician’s guild withdraws permission for Gabriella to practice. Over her mother’s protests, she sets out with two longtime family servants and her own medical chest to retrace his steps.

Regina O’Melveny’s richly layered novel is crammed with details of the hardships of travel, the learning of distinguished physicians at some of Europe’s great universities, the stubborn hope of an intrepid young woman that her beloved father will be found alive, her growing dismay as she tracks disturbing stories of mad behavior and begins to suspect that some family curse may have set him in flight from her.

Very dense book but a real story with fleshed -out characters, a colorful  historical canvas and a classic journey to the interior of the self.  Gabriella is single-minded in her search, curious about the amazing breadth of knowledge that begins to unfold for her, faithful to transcribing all she discovers into a book of her own, worthy of publication. It works on many levels. Nothing cliched–and wholly believable, if startling and dramatic, plot developments. The Book of Madness and Cures is well-named on a number of levels. I would re-read it for the vast amount of information I probably missed tackling it as a one-day read.

The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel   Regina O’Melveny | Little, Brown and Company   2012

In Bed with a Highlander – Maya Banks

In my quest to decipher just what inspires a seven-figure advance to a romance novelist, I tucked into a different series by Maya Banks. In Bed with a Highlander was definitely a better story than the  quasi-military pandering and weird paranormal oddities in the last Banks book I read. This one has a classic story of gruff lord of the keep–laird in this case as we are in Scotland–falling under the spell of the obstinate and spunky young woman who enters his protection unwillingly but eventually romps with great enthusiasm in his bed. Plots of regicide, internal perfidy, threats and violence abound. The characters were as unstable as romance characters usually are–tough and then unaccountably shy and then tough again, no real substance to them. But attractive, volatile, highly-sexed, multi-orgasmic and beset by battles at every turn.

The oddest thing is the way these books are slapped together and marketed, as if the story there is exists only to fill the pages with predictable dangers and sex–and then more danger and more sex, punctuated by startling moments of personal enlightenment in which the main players admit that they love each other. It’s a convention of the genre; it’s fine. But the cover! The cover of In Bed… was truly weird. A battle-scarred Scottish laird, muscled and shaggy, is depicted as a hairless, shirtless bodybuilder from Venice, California wearing a pair of shorts. The heroine, a Scottish bastard with green eyes, Celtic curling hair and clothes of the period is a sinuous Asian vamp with long dark hair and a sort of blue teddy-like thing that has just a little too much fabric in it to be from Victoria’s Secret.  Does this indicate that the publisher believes the intended audience for a Scottish period romance is too stupid to require more than half-naked bodies in a clinch set against a backdrop of green tartan? Tacky.

I’m getting this genre a bit now.  I’ll probably need a few more books to suss out why it is so appealing as a storyline to so many people.  Romance sells like hotcakes–hot romance like hotcakes with real maple syrup. Is it Cinderella for grown-ups, or Sleeping Beauty maybe? I’m puzzled at the flattened-out nature of it but that might just be because I’m not reading more complex, nuanced versions of the basic plot. Murder mysteries are more satisfying, in general, although the badly written ones are as bad as anything unreadable, whatever the genre. So, no more contemporary military types with their bulging jeans and Wal-Mart spectrum of emotions.  I might hunt for historical romantica so there is at least some marginal world-building to examine in between the sighs, moans, poisoned goblets of ale and clashing of bloody swords.

In Bed with a Highlander (McCabe Trilogy)   Maya Banks | Ballantine Books  2011

The Twelfth Enchantment – David Liss

Very odd mystery story, this. The Twelfth Enchantment is a conflict of magic and machinery in England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. David Liss has created a very vivid heroine, Lucy Derrick, impoverished after the death of her father, living at the mercy of a distant relation who despises her, promised to a mill owner she doesn’t want to marry but out of options. At sixteen Lucy ran away with a man much older than she was and her father came after her and brought her home. In the four days she was away, her father’s favorite, her sister Emily, died. Lucy has struggled with a damaged reputation and horrible guilt ever since.

Then a bizarre encounter with Lord Byron sets tongues wagging again and starts a series of inexplicable coincidences and encounters that change Lucy’s life–and put her and her remaining sister in grave danger. It’s complicated. You have to hang on in the beginning for a good long while because no one in this story is what they seem. Even Lucy isn’t who she always thought she was. But she is enormously clever and sharp with a retort and seems to be the one everyone wants. Not everyone who wants her is on her side. In fact, it gets harder and harder for her to find anyone on her side.

The alchemical magic and ancient enchantments are thick on the page. Liss has woven the dark and darker threads of magic into his world-building so well that it feels entirely believable.  There’s a touch of Philip Pullman in this twisted English countryside and smoky, grimy London. Demons (not daemons) abound. Evil lives. Books hold powerful magic. The Twelfth Enchantment is a romance but just barely. It’s much more a mystery and adventure tale with shapeshifters, hordes of undead who are not zombies or vampires, a changeling and some political intrigue for good measure. In the end, the people are stronger than the magic–but the magic is powerful enough to spark mayhem and madness and keep you turning pages.

The Twelfth Enchantment: A Novel   David Liss | Random House   2011