Sunday, March 30, 2014

Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak

The follow-up to the #1 bestseller The Winter Palace
Perfect for the readers of Hilary Mantel and Alison Weir.

Catherine the Great, the Romanov monarch reflects on her astonishing ascension to the throne, her leadership over the world's greatest power, and the lives sacrificed to make her the most feared woman in the world--lives including her own...

Catherine the Great muses on her life, her relentless battle between love and power, the country she brought into the glorious new century, and the bodies left in her wake. By the end of her life, she had accomplished more than virtually any other woman in history. She built and grew the Romanov empire, amassed a vast fortune of art and land, and controlled an unruly and conniving court. Now, in a voice both indelible and intimate, she reflects on the decisions that gained her the world and brought her enemies to their knees. And before her last breath, shadowed by the bloody French Revolution, she sets up the end game for her last political maneuver, ensuring her successor and the greater glory of Russia.

Author Eva Stachniak has written a sequel to The Winter Palace, her first novel about Catherine the Great. The novel is told in present tense in Catherine's own point of view as the great empress lays dying and reflects upon her life.  She has suffered a massive stroke and death is imminent and near. The author did a wonderful job of getting deep into Catherine's head - her thoughts, her desires, her emotions.

There is a strong focus on her relationships with her children and grandchildren, what brought her joy, and what she regrets. As always, the research is thorough, along with wonderful descriptions of the era's clothing, sights, and smells.

The story is a sanitized version of her life that is presented in flashback mode, flitting back and forth between various points in her life in no chronological order. As a reader, I found this novel's focus challenging to understand and follow. Because of this, I highly recommend readers read The Winter Palace first to get a stronger grip on the storyline. For lovers of Catherine the Great and her impact on history, Eva Stachniak's novels are a great way to begin learning about this fascinating woman of history.

The Queen's Handmaid by Tracy L. HIgley

Book Synopsis

From the servant halls of Cleopatra’s Egyptian palace to the courts of Herod the Great, Lydia will serve two queens to see prophecy fulfilled.

Alexandria, Egypt 39 BC

Orphaned at birth, Lydia was raised as a servant in Cleopatra's palace, working hard to please while keeping everyone at arm's length. She's been rejected and left with a broken heart too many times in her short life.

But then her dying mentor entrusts her with secret writings of the prophet Daniel and charges her to deliver this vital information to those watching for the promised King of Israel. Lydia must leave the nearest thing she’s had to family and flee to Jerusalem. Once in the Holy City, she attaches herself to the newly appointed king, Herod the Great, as handmaid to Queen Mariamme.

Trapped among the scheming women of Herod’s political family—his sister, his wife, and their mothers—and forced to serve in the palace to protect her treasure, Lydia must deliver the scrolls before dark forces warring against the truth destroy all hope of the coming Messiah.

Book Review

The Queen's Handmaid is the latest release from author Tracy L. Higley. In this sweeping historical novel, she takes readers into the Biblical time of King Herod, the Galilean governor bent on increasing his power through acquiring land and kingdoms. He uses his influence with Cleopatra and Mark Anthony to make his gains. Lydia is a young handmaiden who works for Cleopatra. This is when Lydia first encounters Herod who convinces Cleopatra to hand Lydia over to him to work for his betrothed. But Lydia possesses a secret. She must locate a man in Jerusalem at the temple courts and hand over to him the secret scrolls she has been entrusted with. She must guard and keep her task a secret before she is murdered.

What follows is a complex plot filled with numerous fascinating characters, life and death dangerous scenarios, and a gripping good story to the very satisfying end. Murder, secret trysts and alliances, spies, betrayal, love, and loyalty! This novel can boast all of that and more. Good writing and plenty of historical detail makes the story truly come alive. Very highly recommended.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Olivia, Mourning (The Olivia Series) by Yael Politis

Book 1 of the Olivia Series
Historical Fiction - USA, 1840s 

Olivia wants the 80 acres in far off Michigan that her father's will left to whichever of his offspring claims the land. As Olivia says, "I'm sprung off him just as much as Avis or Tobey." The problem: she's seventeen, female, and it's 1841.

Mourning Free, Olivia's trusted childhood friend, knows how to run a farm and is also sorely in need of a new start in life. The problem: though born in a free state, he's the orphaned son of runaway slaves and the slave catchers who patrol the north hunting fugitives are not particular about who they take back south with them.

Not without qualms, they set off together. All goes well, despite the drudgery of survival in an isolated log cabin. Incapable of acknowledging her feelings for Mourning, Olivia thinks her biggest problem is her unrequited romantic interest in their young neighbor. Until her world falls apart.

Strong-willed, vulnerable, and compassionate, Olivia is a compelling protagonist on a journey to find a way to do the right thing in a world in which so much is wrong.

2013 Quarter-Finalist ABNA 
2010 Book of the Year YWO

Olivia, Mourning is an epic story of a young woman's desire for independence in frontier Ameria. When Olivia Killion's father dies, she suddenly must face her future. Her eldest brother has inherited the family store and house. Olivia fears that when he marries, she will be a burden. She learns about some land in rural Michigan that her father owns. Of his children, whoever chooses to work the land and make a success of it for one year, can inherit it. With the help of an young black man named Mourning, she secretly departs for the farmland in the hopes that together, they will succeed and earn their own fortunes. But life on the farm is not easy. The living conditions are rugged and primitive. And the neighbours are not all they seem. Soon, Olivia finds herself kidnapped and taken advantage of by her neighours, with Mourning no where to be found.

Olivia, Mourning is a novel reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie series. The description of daily life and all the necessary items and tasks for survival are brilliantly described. While reading this novel, I felt as if I were watching it on the screen, so vivid were the details. I was interested from the first page. It wasn't until the halfway mark that the novel really takes off with a horrible situation Olivia faces with her neighbours. I found myself eagerly flipping the pages and completely and utterly immersed in this story. But be prepared - the book ends with a real big hook that will send you to Amazon to purchase the sequel, The Way The World Is. I strongly recommend this novel as beautifully written, compelling, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Favoured Beyond Fortune by Elizabeth Ashworth


She was one of the richest noblewomen in England. But Alicia de Lacy lost everything when her husband, Thomas of Lancaster, led a rebellion against King Edward II. Everything except the love of one man.


Being unfamiliar with the main character of this novel, I referred to the author’s website to discover more about Alicia de Lacy.

Alice de Lacy was the daughter of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and Margaret Longespee, Countess of Salisbury.  She was their only surviving heir and was married at the age of 13 years to the King’s (Edward I) nephew, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. The marriage was not a happy one and Alice may have had a relationship with the Eble le Strange, the man who became her second husband, whilst she was still married to, but shunned by, Thomas who was known to have had mistresses and illegitimate children during the time he was married to Alice, yet he is barely criticised at all. Alice, on the other hand, is written about in scathing terms.

When has history ever been kind to strong, forceful women? Labelling them as harridans and witches seemed the male gender’s only weapon against them so after reading that, I was eager to read Alicia's story.

The novel opens with a heart-breaking account of the deaths of Alicia’s three siblings, two brothers who died as a result of accident – one wonders how many servants were racked as a result of their negligence – and the loss of an infant daughter in a time when babies dying before their first birthday were commonplace.

Alicia is only thirteen, and too young to be a wife, a situation she knows nothing about but which she looks forward to like any romantic young girl. However, she is doomed for disappointment when her father arranges her betrothal to the selfish and decadent Thomas of Lancaster.  From then onwards, Alice’s life goes steadily downhill.

Her marriage to the boorish Thomas of Lancaster is both loveless and childless, while Alice is admired from afar by the squire Elbe le Strange, who dares not tell her how he feels. I felt so sorry for Alice, who would have blossomed under a man’s affection, but instead endured years of being ignored by her husband and his family.

The characters of Elbe, John Warenne and Thomas Lancaster are very well drawn, beginning as young squires learning to be knights to ambitious young men making their way in a world fraught with conflict, their basic characters remaining the same as when they were children.

When Alice’s father dies, Thomas is content to accept the de Lacy lands and titles but then promptly builds a ‘hall’ for the wife he no longer has a use for. Alice goes to live at Canford Manor in Dorset, from which she was reported to have been abducted by John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, although there is evidence she went willingly, and who could blame her?

Thomas then proceeded on a private war with de Warenne, though he fails to actually request the return of his wife. Even when Thomas dies in battle, life doesn't improve for Alice.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but would warn readers to be prepared for some heart-wrenching scenes. Ms Ashworth made an excellent job of handling a difficult political situation with the Lancasters, Warennes and Henry de Lacy - but poor Alice - history hasn't been kind to her.

As the story is based on an historical character, it does not have the happy ever after ending I wanted for Alice, not to mention the revenge! This is a very well written book and a salutary lesson on the way women were treated in Medieval times, even wealthy ones from influential families. Alice was born close to the English throne, but was treated worse than the lowliest subject.

Author's Website

Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is released by Pen and Sword Books under the name Anita Seymour

TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison

Friday, March 21, 2014

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

Publishers Blurb

Based on a true story from the scandalized headlines of Victorian New York City, My Notorious Life is a portrait of Axie Muldoon, the impoverished daughter of Irish Immigrants who becomes an enormously successful—and controversial—midwife. Separated from her siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, Axie parlays the sale of a few bottles of “lunar tonic for relief of female complaint” into a thriving practice as a female physician known as “Madame X.”

But as she rises from the gutter to the glitter of Fifth Avenue, Axie discovers that the right way is not always the way of the law, and that you should never trust a man who says, “trust me.” But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical soul? Soon, Axie’s choices put her on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and it will take all of her power and wealth to outwit him and save herself and her family from ruin.

A love story, a family saga, and a vivid rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, My Notorious Life is the tale of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is a heroine for the ages.


After a chilling prologue, Ms Manning’s character of Annie [Axie] Muldoon jumps off the page as a twelve-year-old Irish child living in abject poverty in New York. Her father is dead and her mother has been injured in the laundry, but fate in the guise of the Children’s Aid Society takes over and Axie finds herself miles from anywhere, separated from her siblings and thrown into an alien world. In a mixture of Irishisms and colloquial language, Axie tells her own story in an unapologetic uncompromising way so the reader cannot possibly judge her choices.

Axie, her sister Dutch [Duchess] and her brother Joe are given up for adoption to farming families in Illinois. Axie was always going to be the rebel and returns to New York to live with her new stepfather’s family. When her mother dies of childbed fever, Axie becomes a servant to a local doctor and his wife, Mrs Evans, who acts as a local midwife known for her ability to "fix a girl up."

Years later, in Axie’s new incarnation as Madame DeBeausacq, she helps young girls have abortions which introduces a moral dilemma – is Axie helping young, desperate women or simply getting rich? The self-righteous Society for the Suppression of Vice and its odious founder, Anthony Comstock decides Axie is a thorn in their side and is determined to ruin her. However, they underestimate Axie’s skill for fighting back and her own survival.

A fact I wasn’t aware of was that in Victorian times, terminating unwanted pregnancies was not considered a crime if performed before the baby had "quickened". The author has also included some fascinating facts about midwifery practices, so I came away with new insight into how toxic and dangerous childbirth was and how badly women were treated by complacent, ignorant men.

This novel was quite long, over four hundred pages and very detailed, based on the true story of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-79), who was dubbed the ‘Wickedest Woman in New York’ for her role as an abortionist.  The author used the diaries of one of her ancestors, a combination which makes it a fascinating account of what life was really like for women in mid-1800’s America – or in fact any ‘civilised’ society.

Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is released by Pen and Sword Books under the name Anita Seymour

TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison