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Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig

Hello everyone!  Today I’m continuing the Print and Prose Halloween series with a new Halloween book: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla.  It was originally on my summer reading list, but I decided to wait for October since it was a Halloween book.  (This required great restraint, since I have been a fan of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series for years.  In 2009, Becca actually mailed the latest book in the series to me in Europe so that I wouldn’t have to wait until the summer to catch up.)

Manzanilla (aka manchineel) tree

Manzanilla (aka manchineel) tree

The Pink Carnation series is set in the early 1800s, usually in England.  If you’ve ever read The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Orczy, these books are supposed to be about the spies who took over after the Scarlet Pimpernel’s retirement.  They are historical fiction with elements of adventure, mystery and romance.

In the latest book, Miss Sally Fitzhugh has gotten a little tired of life as a debutante in London.  Unimpressed by the latest society rumors that the Duke of Belliston is a vampire, she takes a dare to go into his gardens at midnight.  There, she unexpectedly meets the duke himself.  Lucien has recently returned to England to solve the mystery of his parents’ murder, which has haunted him since childhood.  It quickly becomes clear that someone doesn’t want him to find out what really happens.  When Lucien is framed for a murder, Sally tries to help, and begins to suspect the Black Tulip, a deadly French spy.

Readers of the series will happily recognize the reinforcements from the Pink Carnation’s league who arrive to help Sally and Lucien.  Sally is convinced to pose as Lucien’s fiancee so that an agent, posing as her chaperone, can investigate.  The duke’s relatives plan to celebrate the engagement with a masquerade ball on All Hallow’s Eve.  Can Sally and the duke solve his parents’ murder before the killer strikes again?  And what will happen to their pretended engagement if they do?

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I recommend this series to absolutely everyone, because I want to be Miss Gwen next Halloween.  🙂  I love this series, and if you like books that are smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining, please check out either this book or the first in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.  I particularly recommend them to students.  Remember that dull ache in your head that you get when you’ve spent all week (or more) studying for midterms?  When I was an undergrad, I found that these books are the perfect cure!  I’ve been a fan ever since.  I give both the book and the series five stars.  I can’t wait for the next one!  ★★★★★

-Elizabeth
photo credit: Jean & Nathalie via photopin cc

photo credit: gnuckx via photopin cc

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Hello everyone, and happy October! Here at Of Print and Prose, we’ll be getting ready to celebrate Halloween by posting a Halloween-themed book review every Sunday. We’re starting with an old classic: The Castle of Otranto, the original gothic novel by Horace Walpole.

Cathedral of Otranto

Cathedral of Otranto

I have seen The Castle of Otranto and other gothic novels referenced in books before, so I wanted to read one for myself. I had an opportunity this summer to read it with a friend from my old book club. It was interesting to finally read a book I have seen mentioned so many times.

The Castle of Otranto has some supernatural elements, but it isn’t particularly scary or suspenseful. The basic premise is that unexplained events start happening to a family who may not have rightfully inherited the title and lands of Otranto. Everyone suspects the mysterious occurrences may be signs of divine retribution against the descendants of the usurper. Several mysterious strangers arrive and are caught up in the drama as the current Prince of Otranto tries to escape an old prophecy about his family.

This is an older novel than what I usually read, so it was a little challenging. In the edition I read, the punctuation, mainly the lack of quotation marks in dialogues, made it a little difficult to understand. Of course, Walpole also introduces the novel as a much older manuscript that he had discovered and edited, so it was meant to sound old-fashioned even to eighteenth century readers.

I would recommend reading this book mainly because it is the first of its kind. The whole genre of gothic novels and many horror novels were influenced by this book, so if you like having some historical context when you read, this is a great option. Also, if (like me) you felt you missed a lot of inside jokes while reading Northanger Abbey, this is the perfect place to start. I give this book three stars-I’m glad I read it, but probably wouldn’t be interested in reading it a second time.  ★★★

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Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll be reviewing a much more modern book!

-Elizabeth

photo credit: Cinzia A. Rizzo / fataetoile via photopin cc

photo credit: peddhapati (Thanks for 1M Views!!!) via photopin cc

In The Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Readers, would you agree that you stumble upon some really great books when they aren’t books you would choose for yourself?  It is hit or miss for me, but generally, when I read something I never would have picked up off the shelf of my own volition, I’m pretty impressed.  You can expect a lot more books like this since my happiness project involves a monthly goal to read or watch something I never would have considered otherwise.  This book, In The Time of Butterflies, I picked up in an effort to change up the 10th grade novel at our school (I also hoped to make our curriculum a little less old, rich, white guy centered).  While Alvarez’s novel won’t be used as our school-wide novel for 10th grade, it was an interesting read nonetheless.

Set during the reign of dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, In The Time of Butterflies is a fictionalized account of 4 revolutionary sisters, the Mirabels – 3 of whom were assassinated for their work as revolutionaries opposed to Trujillo’s rule.  Told through four differing viewpoints – from each sister at varying points of the revolution – Alvarez artfully captures both the revolutionary activity and every day activity of these famous sisters.  She develops the characters to seem very much like real people, which is quite an undertaking when writing characters out of historical figures who actually existed.  The reader gets to follow the very unique experience of each sister from their first days in school, through marriage and children, to the fear and imprisonment leading up to their murders.

The thing I liked most about this novel was that it sparked my curiosity about a period in history that I don’t know much about.  I remember vague murmurings of Fidel Castro in Cuba during my history classes, but similar dictatorships in the Dominican Republic were never mentioned, and I’m already interested in learning more.  Additionally, I loved how real the characters were.  Yes, they were iconic revolutionaries.  They were also women with families who experienced exactly what you might expect when their world as they knew it came crashing down around them.  Throughout, I had a very real understanding that though working for the revolutionary was worth it for the fictional versions of the Mirabal sisters, it wasn’t always easy.  In fact, it rarely was.

There were times that the book was hard to read.  Admittedly, at times it was because the narrative became very long-winded and I was waiting for something to actually happen.  This is one critique of the novel.  However, other times, through no fault of Alvarez or her writing, the story simply became very intense, and something I needed to read in smaller doses.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, I’d recommend this book.  The different accounts were well-written and the characters were multi-dimensional and real.  Additionally, it’s an area of history that is recent and occurred close to home – yet many of us don’t know much about this, and that should be changed!  I give In The Time of Butterflies 3 stars.  ★★★

– Becca

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I was really excited to read June’s book club pick, The Red Tent, for several reasons.  First, it came highly recommended by several friends and family members in my book club.  Secondly, I was assured that while the story was based on the Bible, it was not at all preachy or “religious lit” – which has a time and place, but admittedly does not feature prominently in my for-pleasure reading choices!  Finally, I’m a huge fan of historical fiction.  As soon as I had purchased the book, I dived right in, ready for a can’t-put-it-down read.

The Red Tent follows the life story of Dinah from the bible, Jacob’s only daughter by first wife, Leah.  In the bible, Dinah’s story doesn’t really get fleshed out as much as it does in this fictional work, and it was fun to see names I’ve heard throughout years of Sunday School attendance as a child be given a more human personality.  By doing this, I’m sure the author, Anita Diamant, took on some criticism.  Her characters are very human, and thus, more relatable than they are in the Bible (though still not quite as relatable as I’ve come to expect in my favorite fiction) – this means they have human drives and human failings, like jealousy, boredom, and the like.  I spent a great deal of my childhood in church or musical theater, so I had fun trying to pick out the now very fuzzy memories of bible stories from my childhood and making them fit with the story I was reading in front of me.  As soon as Dinah’s brother, Joseph, got a little older, I thought he could perhaps be the subject of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (the VHS version starring Donny Osmond and the cassette soundtrack became background music to much of my childhood) and I was right.

Overall, the plot and character development of this novel wasn’t quite as sophisticated or engaging as I would like.  However, I really enjoyed following a lesser (FEMALE!) bible character and learning more about what her life must have been like – as a child in Canaan with mother-aunts, traveling in a caravan, marrying an Egyptian (who meets a rather unpleasant end at the hands of her brothers) and escaping to Egypt where she lives as a midwife and mother to a prominent scribe.  So often females in the Bible are written as props vs. actual characters, and I loved that Diamant changed that.

I don’t know that I’d read this book again, but if you enjoy the genres – give it a try!  I give this book 2.5 stars. ★★ 1/2

– Becca

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

My most recent Santa Barbara Book Club pick was The House Girl by Tara Conklin.  I’m a big fan of historical fiction, though I haven’t read much from this pre-Civil War time period, so I was excited to check it out.  The narration alternates between past and present times, like one of my favorite books, The Forgotten Garden, so I had pretty high hopes for this book.  Unfortunately, those expectations may have been a bit too high.

The story follows two characters: Lina, a young attorney working on a slavery reparations case at a high powered law office in New York City.  She’s looking to find a plaintiff for her reparations case linked to a slave that will get great publicity for her case.  Through her artist father, she stumbles upon the other main character: Josephine.  Josephine is a slave whose artwork, by Lina’s time, has become famous – under the name of her mistress, Lu Anne Bell.  The story follows each character on a journey – Lina, as she learns about her missing mother, searches for the perfect plaintiff, and questions her career path.  And Josephine as she struggles to escape the bonds of slavery, despite setbacks and nearly every turn.

Overall, the story was good.  The only problem was, it didn’t seem to start until about halfway through.  The author took a very very long time setting the stage, almost unnecessarily so.  Throughout the first several chapters, I found myself asking if anything was going to actually happen.  Once Lina, the attorney, found some old letters, things really started picking up, and I was much more drawn to my kindle.  But man, it took a long time getting there!

That said, I give The House Girl 2.5 stars.  It’s not a bad read… once you’ve made it halfway through the read, that is.  ★★ 1/2

– Becca

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

I also received a Jane Austen-themed book in my stocking this year, a mystery by P. D. James with characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  People have recommended P. D. James to me before, so I was already interested in reading her books, and given my love of Pride and Prejudice, this was a perfect place to start!

This novel picks up several years after the ending of Pride and Prejudice.  The Darcys and Bingleys have settled down and started families, Elizabeth is now accepted by Mr. Darcy’s friends and neighbors (even Lady Catherine!), and everyone is gearing up for Pemberley’s biggest event of the season: Lady Anne’s ball.  Which brings us to the first problem: Lydia Wickham also wants to attend, but hasn’t been invited, so she decides to surprise her sister and brother-in-law by showing up the night before the ball.  Mr. Wickham still “is not received” at Pemberley, so he and his friend Denny decide to drop Lydia off, then continue on to a local inn.  Instead, Lydia arrives alone in the coach, hysterically insisting that Wickham has been murdered.  The Darcys and Bingleys know Lydia well enough to take this with a grain of salt.  However, when the coachman helps explain that Denny had stormed off into the Pemberley woods after an argument with Wickham, who followed him, and moments later they heard gunshots.  Darcy dutifully organizes a search party, and the men soon find Wickham drunkenly crying over Denny’s dead body.  Denny has been attacked, although not shot, and given the circumstances, Wickham is the only suspect.  But despite their low opinion of the man, no one at Pemberley really believes that Wickham would have murdered his best friend.

The odd thing about this book is that none of the main characters do any real detective work.  There is a mystery, but the characters and the reader sort of watch it unfold.  Of course, this does make sense from a realistic historical perspective.  Although Darcy in particular is very concerned about the outcome of the investigation, since the crime took place on his land and his brother-in-law is accused, he has to maintain some distance/impartiality.  He can get Wickham a lawyer, but not go searching through the woods for clues.  It is definitely a different approach to a mystery novel.  (And don’t worry, there is a solution at the end!)

The inscrutable Mr. Darcy is a difficult main character to work with and, although I was initially interested to read more from his point of view, I eventually concluded that it made the book less interesting.  It was nice to see the other characters from his perspective, but I really missed Elizabeth’s wit.  She is the main reason we love Pride and Prejudice so much, and I wanted to see more of her.  One character who does get more of a chance to shine, however, is Georgiana Darcy.  I also thought that James did an excellent job of summarizing what had become of most of the cast of P&P at the beginning of the book.  Her imagined futures for the different characters were well-chosen, true to Austen, and very fun to read.  I give this book three and a half stars.  If you are a fan of Austen or P. D. James, you should definitely consider reading it!  ★★★1/2

-Elizabeth

Cruel as the Grave, by Sharon Kay Penman

Thanks to my New Year’s resolution, I am finding more time to read, so now it’s time to work on finding time to write!  I am starting by catching up on a backlog of posts I have been meaning to write since 2013.  We’ll start with my favorite genre: mystery!

Cruel as the Grave is the second book in a series of historical mysteries by Sharon Kay Penman.  It’s an enjoyable read, perfect for a long day of travelling.  (I may have devoured the entire thing during a long flight…)  After reading it, I am eager to read the first book, The Queen’s Man, as well.  The books are set during the Crusades, while Richard the Lionheart was in prison, his brother Prince John was trying to take the throne of England, and their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was trying to stop him.  Such a turbulent time makes an excellent backdrop for intrigue (and murder mysteries) and Sharon Kay Penman has done a beautiful job of infusing her books with a real sense of the time period.

The main character in the series, Justin de Quincy, has been compared to James Bond.  He is known to the English court as the “queen’s man”-meaning he works for the Dowager Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  De Quincy is an outsider at court, raised in a noble household, but not a nobleman himself.  As a result, he is able to move between two worlds: the royal court and working class London.  In this book, he struggles to balance their conflicting demands as he works to negotiate a peace between Queen Eleanor and her rebellious son, John, while trying to find the killer of a Welsh peddler’s daughter.

I give this book four stars.  I am looking forward to reading more of the series.  It was a quick, engaging read, so I would recommend it to anyone who would like to have some mysteries on their  reading list.  If you prefer historical fiction, Sharon Kay Penman writes those too-check out The Sunne in Splendor for a really great novel about Richard III! ★★★★

-Elizabeth