Book Review: Constellation by Adrien Bosc (trans. by Willard Wood)

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This book is one of those strange mixes of fiction and non-fiction. Bosc carefully unravels the tragic fate of Air France’s Constellation F-BAZN that was on a routine transatlantic flight from Paris to New York on October 27, 1949. But the flight never made it, having crashed in the Azores and taking with it the lives of 38 passengers and eleven crew members.

The story is told in little vignettes split between the lives of the passengers—the famous violist Ginette Neveu and the boxer Marcel Cerdan; the inventor of the Mickey Mouse watch; five Basque shepherds; a divorcé flying to reconnect with his wife—the flight, the crash and recovery, and the funerals for the victims. Bosc’s writing is poignant and poetic; lyrical and heart-wrenching; humorous and insightful. As to be expected, the lives of the famous and wealthy dominate the chapters, but some of the other side stories have their charm. Readers may not connect with them, and the bouncing around of chapters between character portrait, flight, crash, recovery and aftermath may be a bit off-putting.

Nonetheless, Constellation, a Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française winner, is an intriguing story of the tragedy of fate; how coincidence and chance impacted the lives of the passengers—the rich and poor, famous and commonplace—and a reminder of how those same things impact our lives. More than a book about a plane crash, Bosc’s debut resonates best when he delves into the simplest moments of life.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: A Death Along the River Fleet by Susanna Calkins

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The last thing Lucy Campion, a printer’s apprentice, expected to see while walking along the River Fleet was a ghost. But that’s sort of what she finds in Susanna Calkins’ latest mystery set in post-1666 Great Fire London. The ghost turns out to be a young woman covered in blood, in tattered clothes and with no memory of who she is or what happened to her. Lucy takes the girl to a physician she knows, and they try to identify her. When they decide that the mysterious woman probably has a noble upbringing, Lucy agrees to become the woman’s personal caretaker, and together they begin to rebuild her memory. A memory that puts both girls in grave danger and could possibly dismantle a horrible plot that reaches deep into British high society.

Complicating matters for Lucy is the fact that the two men her heart yearns for—Constable Duncan and the wealthy Adam Hargrave—become involved in the search for the woman’s past, and this sets up a love triangle subplot that some readers may feel gets in the way of the true mystery.

Calkins’ London oozes from the pages. From the rank, vile Fleet River, to the lingering effects of the Great Fire, into the dark, foreboding and crazed Bedlam hospital, the reader is transported to a world far away but with a closeness of familiarity. Readers may need to suspend belief that Lucy, from a lower caste, would be so openly accepted into higher society, but that does not get in the way too much of a well-paced, historical mystery. An all-around fun book to read.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: The Art of History–Unlocking the Past in Fiction and Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

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Christopher Bram (Father of Frankenstein, Eminent Outlaws) explores his love for the past in this delightful little book from Graywolf.

“Some people dismiss historical fiction as a bastard genre, the lowly love child of history and romance.” Not Bram. He wallows in the rich details; he revels in the complexities and dynamics that both historical fiction and non-fiction share. Breaking down a group of varied and unlike authors and their work—including Toni Morrison, Leo Tolstoy, David McCullough, and Charles Royster—showing the ways they use biography, details, or even the nature of human comedy as a medium to tell both history and a story. Bram expertly deconstructs some of the genre’s more famous works and shows why they all deserve more than a bastard child label. It would have been easy for Bram to turn this into a thesis paper full of academic stuffiness, but it is clear through the casual, at times humorous, writing that this is a work of love for the genre and history in general.

A must-have book for anyone looking to hone their historical writing craft, as well as for anyone who loves the genre and wants to immerse themselves in the intricacies of the historical narrative.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: The Serpent’s Crown by Hana Samek Norton

nortonIn this sequel to The Sixth Surrender, young novice Juliana de Charnais finds herself wed to Guerin de Lasalle, the powerful Lord of Partheny and heir to the Lusignan family. When Guerin is called off to Cyprus to help his family defend the Lusignan crown, Juliana is left to care for their daughter, Eleanor, alone – but not for long, as Eleanor is taken away by Juliana’s father-in-law, sending Juliana on a quest to regain her daughter, her husband, and her marriage. In Cyprus, Juliana and Guerin are caught in plots and subterfuge both deadly and devious that it will take all their cunning, loyalty, and love to overcome.

Hana Samek Norton begins weaving a web of deceit from the start, and it is an unrelenting journey through the power struggles and deception that enveloped Cyprus in the 13th century. She draws on a number of historical characters, including many from the Lusignan and d’Ibelin families. The Serpent’s Crown focuses on the rise of Hugh I, the intrigues that surrounded his court, and the power plays that led to his rule. It is clear that Norton did her research, basing her story on actual events, but that does not stand in the way of her wonderful writing and storytelling, which bring 13th-century Cyprus to life. The only issue I had was keeping straight the forty-plus characters, many using multiple names. However, there is a “who’s who,” which I referenced often. An intriguing story and a good read.

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Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-serpents-crown/

Book Review: Even the Dead–A Quirke Novel by Benjamin Black

blackInspector Quirke is back in Benjamin Black’s latest, and he picks up with Quirke recuperating at his adoptive brother and sister-in-law’s home. After Quirke’s assistant asks him to look at what the police are calling an accident, Quirke quickly agrees that it is not and that a murder happened. The young man killed is the son of a prominent communist agitator in Dublin, and Quirke is left to decide if the boy was killed because of his father or something he uncovered. When Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, gets a visit from a mysterious, pregnant girl who fears for her life, Phoebe helps her go into hiding. Soon after, the girl disappears, and Phoebe asks Quirke for help. Before long the two cases intertwine. Together with his friend Inspector Hackett, Quirke begins to unravel a cover-up that includes Dublin’s most powerful men and even the Catholic Church.

Though it is only vaguely alluded to, Even the Dead is set in the 1950s. It is a sweltering summer in Dublin, a city that becomes an atmospheric character itself through Black’s skilled writing. Fans of Black’s Quirke series will enjoy the depth with which he explores Quirke’s personal life, longings, and mental baggage, but those looking for a solid mystery may be left disappointed, as the murder and missing girl cases often take a back seat to resolving Quirke’s many, many issues. Readers must suspend disbelief with the numerous coincidences that come to bear in resolving the case, and then there are the love-at-first-sight issues between Quirke and Phoebe’s boss. For what it is, this is a well-written book with an almost lyrical nature to the prose, but it isn’t a deep, suspenseful mystery.

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Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/even-the-dead-a-quirke-novel/