Friday, November 27, 2015

Point of Honour--A Swordswoman Solves A Mystery in an Alternate Regency Novel

I'd been meaning to read the Sarah Tolerance mysteries written by Madeleine E. Robins for some time.  It was a Goodreads recommendation that caused me to finally start Point of Honour, the first in the Sarah Tolerance mysteries.  It was an obvious choice for me since it was about a woman who knew how to use a sword.  I can't resist books about swordswomen.   I began reading it on Thanksgiving as a holiday treat that I knew I would enjoy.


Sarah loved swordplay as much as I do.  She was a daughter of English nobility and wasn't supposed to learn how to use a sword, but  she fell in love with her brother's fencing instructor and ran away with him.   They lived together for many years in exile from England, and he taught her everything he knew.  All of this happened before the book started, so these aren't spoilers.   This is Sarah's background.    Her family had disowned her.  This meant that when she returned to England after the death of her lover, she had to figure out how to make her own way in life.

In the context of Regency England, she was a "fallen woman" and would have been expected to join what is often called "the world's oldest profession".   So she created her own alternative, and Madeleine Robins created an alternate continuity  in which a woman like Sarah Tolerance could exist.

A GR friend that I respect very much complained about the way Regency England had been altered in her review of this novel.  I found that I disagreed with her.   I think that if an author is ignorant about the historical period in which the novel takes place and makes errors due to lack of research, that's inexcusable.  Yet when an author deliberately creates a different continuity and discusses it in an Author's Note, that's alternate history which is a sub-genre that I enjoy.

The main difference between this Regency England and the one we know is that the Regent is the Queen, the wife of the mad King George III.   There are other small changes that make the social landscape a bit more friendly to an independent woman.   One example is that she can join a gentleman's club that accepts women so long as they can afford to pay the membership fee.   This doesn't mean that Sarah doesn't encounter prejudice.   She is insulted and disrespected nearly every day, but she manages to maintain her self-respect.

Sarah invented a profession that didn't exist in 1810 when the events of Point of Honour take place. She called herself an investigative agent.  In our contemporary world we call them private investigators or detectives.  In our world, Eugène-François Vidocq became the first private detective in 1833.  For more information about Vidocq see the Wikipedia article about him.

The case that Sarah is hired to investigate in this first novel doesn't sound very interesting.  She is expected to find a fancy jeweled fan that an Earl had in the past given to his mistress. The case turns out to be far more complicated and dangerous than Sarah had ever imagined.  There are a number of swordfighting scenes for readers who are swordplay fans.   

Sarah Tolerance is a wonderful character.  Her skills, her loyalties and her principles are all tested in this book, but she is spirited, resilient and always a woman of integrity in a world where a woman who has lost her virginity is believed to have no honour.

Even though there are only two more books to read in the Sarah Tolerance series,  I think that this protagonist is going to be a new favorite of mine.   Perhaps in the later installments, she will become more respected and recognized.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Paris Protection: A Thriller About A Female U.S. President Under Threat in Paris

This is a time when a thriller about very well organized terrorists trying to assassinate the President of the United States in Paris is particularly chilling because it seems all too real.   In addition, this threatened President is a woman at a time when the leading Democratic candidate in the Presidential race is also a woman.  Given the current circumstances, some readers may find this hard to take. 


The Paris Protection is filled with nearly non-stop suspense.   The survival of the U.S. President remains in doubt until very close to the end of the novel.   There’s a great deal of violence with a high body count. In the book, much was made of the fact that the struggle between assassins and the Secret Service is usually brief.  At one point it occurred to me that if a different decision had been made at the beginning of the crisis, it could have been terminated quickly with less loss of life.  It did seem to me that the plot was more than a bit contrived.  Devore manipulated it to prolong the President’s danger for the length of an entire novel.  Yet it was compelling.   Most thriller fans will probably consider The Paris Protection a gripping narrative. 

I very much liked some of the characters. The author focuses on a few Secret Service agents who were courageous, determined and resourceful.  Rebecca Reid is the most central character in these events.   I appreciate the fact that Devore portrayed a female Secret Service agent as being so good at coming up with fast solutions at the moments when they were most needed.

I was also pleased that brave Parisians also had their moment in the storyline.  I’d like to believe with author Devore that the spirit of Paris remains strong in the face of terrorism.   This is an inspiring element in The Paris Protection.  The sequence that takes place on the street in Paris is a powerful one.

On the other hand, I find the motives of the chief villain rather byzantine.   Why does he hate his own country as much as he does? It didn’t seem to me that his experiences explained his feelings.   If anything, I would have thought that he’d be very guilt ridden.   I realize that some sociopaths are incapable of guilt, but there has to be a missing flashback locked inside his labyrinthine mind that would have made this terrorist leader more understandable to me. 

So this book has pros and cons.  Good copy editing was one of the positive points.  This is one of the few books I’ve read lately with no typographical errors.    On the whole, I thought that the positive outweighed the negative.  The Paris Protection is a novel that’s worth reading. 


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Wolf By Wolf--Can Our Heroine Kill Hitler?

If this blog is about anything it's about female protagonists like Yael in Wolf By Wolf  by Ryan Graudin.  Yael is a teen who is a concentration camp survivor in an alternate world where Hitler won World War II. She escaped the camp using a paranormal power that allows her to assume new identities easily, but she still has concentration camp numbers on her arm that can't be removed.  She elected to cover them with wolf tattoos.  So she is in the process of concealing her past and her former identity wolf by wolf.


Needless to say, Yael's gift is very useful to the resistance movement against Hitler.   They developed a scheme that involves Yael becoming Adele Wolfe, a female motorcycle racing champion, and winning the Third Reich's biggest race in order to be able to get close enough to Hitler to take him out.  It's a complex and risky plan.   It requires courage, persistence and constant vigilance.  In this world spanning race from Berlin to Tokyo, Yael can't relax for an instant or ever fully trust any of her competitors.

The novel includes flashbacks to Yael's past.  We learn how she acquired her paranormal power and the emotional impact of her terrible experiences.  At one point, Yael realized that she hadn't been herself in so long that she'd forgotten what she looked like.   She tries to hang on to her sense of herself by using the very thing that is concealing who she used to be.  For Yael, each wolf tattoo represents someone who had been important to her.  I empathized with Yael's desperate inner struggle to preserve her identity while she is pretending to be someone else.

The ending of Wolf by Wolf is unexpected.   Although this alternate world's situation isn't fully resolved, there is hope for the future.   Having hope in such grim circumstances is enough for me.  I am willing to wait for the 2016 sequel to discover the fate of Yael and her universe.  I want to believe that she will be as inspiring in the second book as she was in the first.



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Heartless City by Andrea Berthot

This the second book that I've read from the publisher Curiosity Quills.  The first one, Alice Takes Back Wonderland by David D. Hammons, was such a delight that I had high expectations for The Heartless City by Andrea Berthot.  I reviewed Alice Takes Back Wonderland on Book Babe here.  More recently, I received a free copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.

Like the first Curiosity Quills book that I tried, The Heartless City is also derived from a classic novel. It's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, a precursor of every modern horror novel in which a man turns into a monster.   The Heartless City isn't a retelling of Stevenson's work, but an imaginative extension of his concept.  I would categorize it as YA dystopian alternate history.  It takes place in a terrifying Victorian/Edwardian London that never was.


Why am I reviewing this dystopian novel based on a famous horror story when I've often stated quite emphatically that I don't read horror and that I'm not fond of dystopias?   I just had a feeling when I read the description that this wouldn't be the sort of book I mean when I say that I detest those genres.

The next question is why I would review this book for Book Babe. There is a male protagonist, but he encounters a dance hall waitress by the name of Iris Faye, who is a great deal more than she appears to be.   The plot actually revolves around Iris, and she is a very strong female protagonist.

So what happened to London in this alternate timeline?  After the death of Dr. Jekyll, a drug that turned men into Hydes became widely distributed. Many Londoners of all classes were becoming monstrous Hydes.  Queen Victoria and Parliament fled the city.  London was quarantined.  A quarantine is normally established to contain an epidemic of a contagious disease.   The Hyde phenomenon was neither.  The Hyde drug needed to be deliberately injected in order for someone to become a Hyde. In Berthot's version, the Hydes lack compassion and therefore consume human hearts.  This makes them monsters who are somewhat akin to those trendy zombies. Zombies can't think for themselves and therefore consume human brains.   No one can tell these lumbering creatures that eating hearts or brains won't help them.

Enter our heroine Iris Faye, the only girl who dares to walk alone through the streets of this London after dark.    How does Iris survive?  Who is she really? The answers to these questions would be spoilers.  It takes the entire book to answer them fully.

As in many YA novels, there is a romance element.  It is the expected romance between the two teen protagonists. Romance fans will be happy to know that despite all obstacles, there is a HEA ending for them. Male protagonist Elliot Morissey is the son of the Lord Mayor's personal physician.  He is grief-stricken by the death of his mother at the hands of a Hyde.  A girl who doesn't fear the Hydes is a revelation to him.  He is fascinated by Iris, and she helps him find the courage that he never knew he had.

 I have to admit that I was also fascinated by her.   Once I had the explanation for the mystery that was Iris, I had to work it out in my mind.  Was the resolution scientifically feasible?  I'm still not sure. I have arguments for and against it written in my book journal.   Since there is a possibility that it might be plausible, I'm willing to consider this novel science fiction rather than fantasy.  Other readers may think otherwise.  YMMV, folks.

Iris is the name of the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology.  The rainbow is a sign of hope.  I found this to be a hopeful book and it was largely because of Iris.





Saturday, November 7, 2015

Suffragette: Review of a New Movie

I subscribe to an e-mail list for the Landmark movie theater chain.  Suffragette was mentioned as an upcoming movie in October. I got excited. Then the theater near  where I work put it on the marquee as coming soon.  I saw that announcement on the marquee every time I passed that theater after work. I love books and movies about suffragettes, so I've been very impatient.  It opened at that theater yesterday and I went to the first showing.


Suffragette is a British film about the late 19th and early 20th century women's suffrage movement.  It's the first movie which contains scenes that were actually filmed in the Houses of Parliament according to the article about the movie on Wikipedia.

The central character is laundress Maud Watts played by Carey Mulligan.  Another important  character is Edith Ellyn played by Helena Bonham Carter.  There is also an appearance that amounts to only a bit more than a cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst.

As a movie I thought it was very good.  There was nice cinematography plus accurate period sets and costumes.  I thought that the performances were effective.   Americans will probably be seeing this movie on PBS eventually.  If my tone sounds less than enthusiastic, it's because I was disappointed.  I imagine that most members of the audience for this film probably wouldn't feel that way.

From a historical point of view,  I felt that Suffragette was both simplified and distorted.  It chose to focus on Emmeline Pankhurst's wing of the British suffrage movement, but the movie was supposed to be telling the story of working women involved in that movement.  Emmeline Pankhurst's daughter Sylvia was the one who actually spoke to working women.  Yet she only received a brief mention in this movie.  As a socialist and labor activist, Sylvia thought it was important to help these women and deal with their issues.  So she was more than an advocate for women's suffrage.  She cared about working women, and wanted to improve their lives.  She was also a pacifist who was opposed to Emmeline Pankhurst's violent tactics.  There's a brief biography of her on a Sylvia Pankhurst Website

 I first learned about  the role that Sylvia Pankhurst played in the suffrage movement when I read Suffragette Autumn, Women's Spring which I joint reviewed with Tara on Book Babe here. This novel by Ian Porter focused on a working class perspective of the Titanic disaster and the British women's suffrage movement.  I absolutely loved it and wholeheartedly recommend it.  Porter portrayed Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel as rather prejudiced against people of working class backgrounds.   So from the perspective of someone who read Porter's book, I thought it was extremely ironic that a movie that wanted to focus on these women would show us Emmeline Pankhurst as their leader, and virtually ignore Sylvia Pankhurst.

I was further disenchanted by Suffragette when I read the background on the real woman who supposedly inspired Helena Bonham Carter's character. Edith Ellyn, the fictional character who appeared in the movie, was apparently a doctor who worked in a dispensary in a working class neighborhood.  She was supposed to have been inspired by Edith Garrud who was one of the first women to teach martial arts. She ran two jujitsu dojos with her husband, and she taught jujitsu to a women's corps of body guards who fought hecklers at women's suffrage rallies.  There was a very short scene of Edith Ellyn teaching martial arts in the movie, but there was no emphasis on martial arts in the film.  Edith Ellyn was a likable character, but not especially interesting.  Edith Garrud was absolutely awesome! I would have loved to have seen her in Suffragette.

 Martial artist Tony Wolf wrote a trilogy of graphic novels about Edith Garrud and the women she trained to protect suffragettes.  The series is called Suffrajitsu. There was a recent article on in which Tony Wolf discusses Edith Garrud at Suffragette Bodyguards which shows photos of her training of suffragettes.  He also informs readers about Suffrajitsu.

Here is the cover of the first Suffrajitsu graphic novel.


I really want to read this, but unfortunately my Kindle doesn't display color graphics.  So I'll have to wait until I have enough spare cash for the print version.

I'm not sorry that I saw Suffragette, but I probably wouldn't have rushed to the theater to see the very first showing if I had known that it wouldn't meet my expectations.  Perhaps one day there will be a movie about Edith Garrud.  I will be the first on line to see it. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Brief History of Elizabeth Stuart: A Guest Post from Nicola Cornick

History is selective. It remembers some characters whilst others become lost over the years. Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia was hugely powerful in her own time and she deserves her rightful place in history. Instead she has almost been forgotten.

Elizabeth Stuart was born in 1596, the daughter of King James VI of Scotland and I of England. At the age of 16 she made a political marriage to Frederick the Elector Palatine, a German Prince, a match designed to strengthen the Protestant cause in Europe. Elizabeth, beautiful, charming and sweet natured, was known as the “Queen of Hearts”. She went to live in Heidelberg and when her husband was offered the throne of Bohemia in 1619 she encouraged him to accept it. A year later he had been defeated in battle and the family were forced to flee into exile.

The "Snow King and the Winter Queen" - so called because their reign had lasted a single winter - sought refuge in the Netherlands, in The Hague. Frederick died in 1632, leaving Elizabeth a widow with thirteen children and an uncertain future. She became one of the foremost powerbrokers in Europe, taking her family’s affairs into her own hands and continuing to lay claim to the disputed territory that was her eldest son’s inheritance.

During this phase of her life Elizabeth worked ceaselessly to gain financial, military and moral support for her cause, enlisting the reluctant support of her brother Charles I and gaining the respect of politicians and diplomats across Europe. Her surviving letters show her to be a woman of strength and determination, as well as a key cultural, political and religious leader. She was successful in having her elder son reinstated in his principality in 1648 and her grandson George became the first Hanoverian King of England.

It was rumoured that after Frederick’s death, Elizabeth secretly married William, Lord Craven, who had been one of her most constant military and financial supporters through the years of her exile. It is this story that is at the centre of my new book, House of Shadows. Certainly William was utterly devoted to Elizabeth and when they returned to England in 1661 he provided a house for her to live in and started to build Ashdown House for her. The mirror that features in House of Shadows is my invention but there was a cursed pearl which features in a painting of Elizabeth that hangs in Ashdown House to this day and was part of the inspiration for the book.

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick is out 5th November (Mira, original paperback £7.99)


House of ShadowsLondon, 1662:
There was something the Winter Queen needed to tell him. She fought for the strength to speak.
‘The crystal mirror is a danger. It must be destroyed – ‘
He replied instantly. ‘It will’.

Ashdown, Oxfordshire, present day: Ben Ansell is researching his family tree when he disappears. As his sister Holly begins a desperate search, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to an ornate antique mirror and to the diary of Lavinia, a 19th century courtesan who was living at Ashdown House when it burned to the ground over 200 years ago.

Intrigued, and determined to find out more about the tragedy at Ashdown, Holly’s only hope is that uncovering the truth about the past will lead her to Ben.

For fans of Barbara Erskine and Kate Morton comes an unforgettable novel about three women and the power one lie can have over history!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Almost Invincible: Mary Shelley's Ambivalent Rebellion

As we celebrate Halloween, readers might want to recall an iconic gathering at Villa Diodati in Switzerland for the purpose of reading spooky stories.  Two literary luminaries, Lord Byron and Mary's future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, were participants.  Another contributor to the evening's entertainment who is not so well known was Byron's physician, John Polidori.  That night isn't remembered for what Byron and Shelley wrote for that occasion.  Nor is it remembered for what Polidori  wrote, though perhaps it should be. His novel The Vampyre that emerged from that dusk assemblage is a landmark work for those who are interested in the history of vampire fiction.  Yet that confluence of creativity draws people's interest because Mary Shelley first imagined the book that became Frankenstein.   Suzanne Burdon opens her Mary Shelley novel, Almost Invincible, with a re-creation of that remarkable evening. 

 A while back I  reviewed The Lady and Her Monsters on my old blog.  It was a non-fictional history of the literary and scientific background behind Frankenstein.  So Almost Invincible is not the first book dealing with Mary Shelley that I've blogged.  It's a biographical novel that focuses on her marriage, but I thought it was appropriate to begin this Halloween review with a mention of Mary Shelley's best known work.


 After reading Almost Invincible,  I've come to the conclusion that Mary Shelley was truly caught betwixt and between her heritage as the daughter of the radical and unconventional Mary Wollstonecraft and her upbringing in the Godwin household run by the second Mrs. Godwin, Mary Jane Clairmont, who was obsessed with respectability.   Mary ran off with Shelley, who was then a married man, but she worried about the scandal that ensued.  At one point, she complained to Shelley that his metaphorical umbrella that protected him from malicious talk didn't  shield her. It seems to me that if Mary wanted to share his metaphorical umbrella, she needed to shelter under it.    Shelley's protection was a mindset that the opinions of conventional people didn't matter to him. Stepping under his umbrella would mean that Mary would have to adopt that mindset, and she seemed incapable of doing so.   The only explanation is that Mrs. Clairmont-Godwin had influenced Mary far more than she had managed to influence her own daughter, Claire.   Mary recognized that her father,  philosopher William Godwin, had become a hypocrite who no longer supported the social radicalism that he advocated when he and Mary Wollstonecraft were a couple.  Yet she didn't perceive that she was equally inconsistent.

The title of the novel is taken from Godwin's evaluation of his daughter, but Mary was by no means invincible.  She was hurt by Claire who she viewed as a rival for Shelley's affection, and she was very wounded by the deaths of all her children except for Percy.   In fact, I thought that Claire was far more resilient because she lacked Mary's emotional sensitivity. Claire was unsympathetic, but I thought she was stronger than Mary.  Claire's response to loss was anger.  She refused to  completely surrender herself to grief, and was able to move on with her life.

What I liked most about this book were the references to what was happening during the period. For example,  in Villa Diodati Byron and Shelley discussed the increasing unrest due to serious climate change.   It was known as "The Year Without a Summer" which was caused by a volcano eruption in Indonesia in 1815.  There is an excellent article about it here by Gillen D'Arcy-Wood.  It includes descriptions of the uncanny weather that Mary wrote in correspondence with her half-sister Fanny Imlay.  These reports of  extreme climate in 1816 eventually found their way into Frankenstein.  

Another compelling example of historical context in this novel occurred when Mary, Shelley and Claire traveled through France in 1814. Burdon describes the devastation and misery of the Russian invasion and occupation that had taken place at that time. For more information, see an article about it on the Napoleon Society website here.

So although the main focus of Almost Invincible was on Mary's relationship with Shelley, Burdon did provide a frame of reference which shows us the truth of their times.