Historical Fiction, Non-fiction, Review copies

Mini-reviews: Strings Attached and Bellman & Black

strings attached

Strings Attached – Joanne Lipman & Melanie Kupchynsky – 6/10

“Mr K had achieved the impossible: he had made us better than we had any right to be.”

A memoir after a fashion – Joanne and Melanie learnt violin from Melanie’s father, the fabled Mr. K. Famous as an incredibly tough but motivational teacher in their New Jersey school district. The writers alternate chapters, and it’s also partly a family memoir for Melanie, writing about her invalid mother and missing sister.

Coming from a half-musical, half-education background, I found a lot of the material about Mr K’s enthusiasm and teaching styles and musical tuition really interesting. I was less interested in the stories of growing up and school awkwardness and actually the storyline of Melanie’s missing sister (a heartbreaking story and I know why it was included, but it felt like an incongruous addition).

bellman and black

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – 7/10

Another e-book that spent a year unreviewed. See a theme here? Also I should start with a note – I am not a fan of supernatural storylines. And I did really enjoy another of Setterfield’s novels, The Thirteenth Tale, though there was a strong homage tone there.

William Bellman kills a rook with a catapult at the age of 11, and for years it seems to bring him good luck. Slowly his wonderful life is eroded and he spends more and more of his time at funerals, where he always sees a ghostly stranger. The stranger has a business proposition for him…

This reminded me very much of another book, and I cannot think which one it is (I think it’s a Philippa Gregory one?), in which the women are very conscious of the circle of fortune – sometimes a family is at the top, and sometimes at the bottom.

Really well written, though like Life After Life, could have done with some of the chapters having been cut down. I wasn’t a fan of the supernatural aspect and in fact found the non-resolution of it quite frustrating. But, it didn’t bother me as much as it might have.

Current Affairs, Review copies

Old mini-reviews

Some of my reviews have been outstanding since 2012, to the point where I can’t remember very much about the books any more. So it’s time to jot down some thoughts and move on.

Also – 3 of these were NetGalley copies i.e. on the Kindle – which is how they got forgotten about for so long (and the other one I had in paperback but lent it to a friend and haven’t got it back… though I don’t really want it back). So the moral of the story is here, my friends, out of sight, out of the review chain.

little night

Little Night – Luanne Rice – 5/10

I don’t remember very much about this one at all except that it centred on domestic violence. Now that I’ve read the internet a bit to remind myself, it was more complex than that. It’s a web of family dysfunction – very pronounced characters struggling to play nicely together. It’s very New York, but apart from that nothing really stands out. Next.

last apache girl

The Last Apache Girl – Jim Fergus – 5/10

An amateur photographer signs onto the “Great Apache Expedition”, one of dozens of men hoping to free the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher kidnapped by a violent band of Apaches. A wild Apache girl is being held as counter-argument, and Ned slowly builds a relationship with her, but their relationship is doomed from the start.

Somewhat like Dances with Wolves. I don’t remember struggling to get through it, but if you’re going to read something like this, I’d stick with Dances with Wolves.

house of serenades

The House of Serenades – Lina Simoni – 6/10

Historical romance/social study set in 1910 Genoa. Romeo & Juliet after a fashion – rich girl meets poor boy, falls in love, daddy says no. Has some interesting things to say about treatment of women in that age – particularly women who we would expect to be financially independent. Don’t remember a lot about it but I did zoom through it pretty quickly – that’s always a good sign.

world without you

The World Without You – Joshua Henkin – 8/10

I actually remember really enjoying this one – it’s sentimental and tear-jerking, but in a good way. It’s the story of the family left behind when a US journalist dies in Middle Eastern conflict; how his wife struggles to interact appropriately with his grieving parents – she wants to be part of this family and give them access to their grandson, but also wants to move on. The parents are struggling in marriage and in grief. The three siblings are each fighting their own demons – including one who has embraced Orthodox Judaism and feels excluded from her family as a result. Would definitely recommend (but keep the Kleenex handy).

Historical Fiction

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton DiSclafani – 7/10

“But then, I knew nothing about the place except that it was where my parents were sending me so they wouldn’t have to see me.”


Thea has brought disgrace on her Florida old-money Great Depression family and is sent away for the summer to a riding camp. When it becomes clear that her stay is not just for the summer but that her parents want her permanently out of their sight, she tries to make herself more welcome in her new world, trading favours and gossip for social elevation…

Thea is an intriguing character. In some senses she is wise beyond her years, acting more adult than many of the adults around her, but still very much a teenage girl with that brutal mix of sharpness. Her odd relationship with her twin – maybe it only seems odd to me because I’m not a twin. The liaison with a far-distant cousin, who at the same time is like a brother to her, predictable and yet tragic. Her parents, considering that she spends very little time with them in the book, are also sharply captured – on the cusp of modernising while buried in their orange grove dollars. 

DiSclafani (what a great surname!) captures the fading South well; the drip-drip-drip of family money down the Depression drain while girls are packed off to finishing school. The importance attributed to decorum and the age of family money is thrown into relief against the lacking morals displayed by several characters and the spicy ambition of the girls to succeed.

In a sense I found it disappointing that the plot continues to return to Thea’s sexual adventurousness – as if there was no other aspect of her that could cause conflict (when there were plenty of other aspects). But I often find that frustrating in a novel. The inevitable decay of the old money system was much more interesting, as was the evolution of Thea’s relationship with her parents.

A much darker, more American boarding school tale than those of Enid Blyton on which I grew up. Just as addictively readable.

Additional information:

Copy sent by the publisher, Tinder Press, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Tinder Press, 389 hardback pages 
Order The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girlsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Historical Fiction, Review copies, Thriller

The Bedlam Detective – Stephen Gallagher – 6/10

“The names of the house always charmed her. They hadn’t when she’d lived here, but they charmed her whenever she returned. Prospect Place. St Cuthbert’s. Puffin. St Elmo’s. Evangeline was a city dweller now, a grown woman, and these names were her childhood.”


Two country girls have been found brutally murdered, not far from the estate of Sir Owain Lancaster, who returned alone some years ago from a disastrous trip to the Amazon. Sebastian Becker is sent to investigate, wondering if Sir Owain needs treatment in the infamous hospital above his office – Bedlam…

Becker is a solid everyman sort of detective, sympathetic without being ingratiating, persistent without being omniscient. Some home troubles make him a slightly more rounded character but not all that much time is devoted to making him an interesting person – he is the vehicle for the story. On the other hand there is a huge amount of time and paper devoted to the tale of Sir Owain’s misadventures in the Amazon – we have his diary as well as the observations of those around him so his is really the most rounded character in the book. Which begs the question – why bother with the London side-story and the murder of the girls? If the author just wanted to tell the tale of Sir Owain’s (literally incredible) visit to South America, why not just tell it by itself?

As with all these historical endeavours, one wonders how authentic it is. Would Sebastian’s autistic son really have fared so well in 19th century London? Is the life portrayed in Bethlehem Hospital accurate (or even close to accurate)? The London of the book felt quite sanitised, compared to the bleakness of country living. There’s an assortment of bit parts which are cleverly and amusingly put together – I particularly liked Becker’s family and the country plod who is supposed to assist Becker in his investigations.

I felt that towards the end, the author was in a bit deep with the plot/stories he had constructed and it needed to be wrapped up – the episode at the country hall has heavy touches of deus ex machina to it. As I look at the slim book beside me (it’s only just over 300 pages), more and more threads of plot come back to me and it’s surprising to consider they were all included in the same novel!

Overall, an enjoyable enough mystery; a bit dark for what I’m used to, and if you don’t mind the heavy-handed wrapping up, you should find it pretty gripping.

Additional information:

Copy kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Broadway Paperbacks, 305 paperback pages 
Order The Bedlam Detectivefrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Historical Fiction

The Wedding Gift – Marlen Suyapa Bodden – 9/10

“That was how I learned what my future was to be, and my only thought was that my dreams of escaping were those of a fool. My absurd notions of running away or being bought into freedom by Isaac were exposed for what they were, empty plans made by a girl in bondage.”

wedding gift

Clarissa is born into Southern wealth – as the daughter of a plantation owner, she can expect privilege and honour all her life. Sarah is born into slavery – the daughter of a housekeeper, her life is considerably better than that of the fieldhands. The girls grow up together, which has its advantages for Sarah. But when Clarissa gets married and her father gives her Sarah as a maid, the two young women will be dependent on each other much more than they could have envisaged.

This novel is full of fantastically strong women. Sarah, Theodora Allen, Emmeline, Belle, Clarissa, Miss Mary – Bodden writes compelling, attention-grabbing, wonderful women, decisive in the courses of their lives. Sarah in particular is impulsive and gutsy, but the reader cannot help rooting for her. The twist at the end was actually quite harrowing – it was totally unexpected and cast the rest of the novel in a totally different light.

I was surprised by the social mores of the time in the white family – the common keeping of black mistresses, the physical abuse, the drinking… I don’t really know why I was surprised by it when it featured pretty strongly a century later in The Shadow QueenAmazing Grace is one of my favourite films, but it tells the story of slavery from a very British side. I have no way of knowing how accurate the depiction of the lives of cotton slaves is in The Wedding Gift, but like after I read The Help, I feel like I should do some learning. Which is a commendable result for a novel.

Buy it, borrow it, get it, read it.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher, Random House, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Random House, 399 pages (hardback)
Order The Wedding Giftfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Historical Fiction

The Kingmaker’s Daughter – Philippa Gregory – 8/10

“Well, it makes no odds. A girl’s no good. A girl can’t take the throne.”

The fourth in Gregory’s highly successful series of The Cousins’ War (as the War of the Roses, as we now know it, was known at the time), The Kingmaker’s Daughter tells the story of Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Earl of Warwick. Warwick had put Edward IV on the throne, but Edward had proved to be not quite as malleable a puppet as Warwick had expected, by marrying Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen, daughter of The Lady of the Rivers) in secret. Disappointed by his protege, Warwick turned to Edward’s other brothers in an effort to control the throne, and married his daughters off to meet his needs.

Anne’s life is portrayed in the other books as a sorry one – sickly, often overlooked for advantageous marriages, having to cater to her sister’s every whim. However, this book was considerably more positive than I had expected – Gregory imbues her with a resilience and loyalty which is not expected, given the other books I had read in the series. She deals with her father’s repeated changing of sides, her sister’s superiority and paranoia, the trouble caused by her over-ambitious brother-in-law; none of it causes her much distress. What is interesting is her introspection towards the end – she knows she has become hardened and deadened to political movements and changes that would have once scandalised her.

It is a little frustrating to read the same material again (admittedly through different eyes and different imagined private events), but Gregory does an admirable job of introducing enough new material to keep us interested and a different perspective on familiar events. My main objection to the prior books has been the sheer number of battles to wade through; this book misses some of the first ones out by starting only once Edward IV is on the throne, and ending before the Battle of Bosworth field which would ultimately conclude the Cousins’ War.

I found it interesting that Richard III is ultimately portrayed as sympathetic, loyal, in fact fatally loyal to the York cause, and not the evil hunchback that Shakespeare would have us remember. In this, Gregory builds on the not unsympathetic picture conjured in The White Queen.

If you’ve read the other three, you’ll read this one too. If you haven’t read the others, I wouldn’t worry about this one – start with The Lady of the Rivers (first chronologically) or The White Queen (best written) and see how you get on with the series.

Historical Fiction, Review copies

The Shadow Queen – Rebecca Dean – 8/10

“The day would come when her Uncle Sol would eat his heart out to be publicly recognised as being her relation – and when it did, she wouldn’t even give a nod in his direction.”

I nearly didn’t get my hands on this one; after a FedEx misadventure, there is still a copy of it floating around my office block which remains stubbornly elusive; thankfully Jonathan at Random House was generous enough to send a second copy across the Atlantic.

This beautifully presented novel (how could you not love all the Art Deco/ancient photograph stuff going on on the cover?) fictionalises the life of Wallis Simpson previously Spencer née Warfield, up to the point at which she meets (then) Prince Edward, heir to the throne which she would famously (infamously?) cause him to abdicate. We follow her fraught childhood, caught between the money and glamour of her family and the financial situation of her mother, left nearly penniless by a consumptive husband; her escape to Florida and a number of failed romances, and eventually her move to England in pursuit of the very highest of society.

It’s always hard to know with this style of book what is documented fact and what is author’s literary licence, but Wallis was a strong and well-fleshed out character; proud, strong, vivacious, not cowed by financial difficulty or bullying, always certain she was right but vulnerable as well. I loved the budding romance between Wallis and John Jasper, and was suitably outraged when it came to an end (that’s not a spoiler, right? Everyone knows she ended up marrying no-longer-King Edward).

Her subsequent romances were more difficult to deal with – as we moved into more reliably documented territory (her first and second marriages, her time in Florida, Washington and London), I struggled more to understand her motivations – I think Dean writes better when not constrained so much by documented history. The increasing emphasis on Wallis’ and others’ sexual liaisons also made me lose interest in the book a little – I know she had a scandalous reputation but it seemed like it was the easy thing to write about; I needed more context as to the mores of the time to know what was shocking and what was not.

Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the period, the story, or turn-of-the-century high society in the US.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Twice. If you work with me and you know where the original copy is that was Fedexed to me, let me know. I promise not to hurt you. Much.
Publisher: Broadway, 414 pages (paperback).
Order The Shadow Queen: A Novel of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting