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/

Book Review: The Longest Fight by Emily Bullock

bullockIn 1950s London, Jack Munday is trying to find lightning in the bottle that will get him to the top of the boxing world. A former boxer, Jack thinks he has found his man in Frank, a young Irish boy with a powerful left hook. Together, they start to make their way up through London’s seedy, dark rings to the big show. Slowly, Frank falls in love with Pearl, a young girl living with Jack, whose relationship to him slowly evolves throughout the story. Eventually, Frank decides that he no longer wants to fight and that he and Pearl will marry. Jack has to decide if he is willing to let it all go, or seek out one last victory with Frank in his corner.

Bullock’s London is the real winner in this book. It’s a gritty, dark world rebuilding from the Blitz, and the perfect place for Jack to explore the wreckage of his own life: his abusive father, the sudden death of his wife, and his lackluster boxing career. While this is a story about boxing, the ring is really a metaphorical place for Jack to go round for round with his past. In her story about redemption and hope, Bullock’s writing is as taut as the fighters in her ring. The pacing is slow at times, but it does draw to a satisfying conclusion. A good read for an interesting look at London before, during and after the war.

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

Book Review: Girl Singer by Mick Carlon

carlonAfter hearing Avery Hall sing at a dive club in Harlem, Lester “Pres” Young advises Count Basie to bring her on as their new singer. And that’s how 19-year-old Avery goes from being a waitress living in a small apartment to traveling aboard the Blue Goose – Basie’s bus – throughout the United States during the 1930s and into World War II. Along the way, she learns about America’s varying levels of racism, especially in the Deep South. After the war, Avery leaves the band, but not the “family,” and settles into a comfortable life in New York.

Here, she is forced to confront her own prejudices when she meets Karl, a man she first accuses of being a good-for-nothing Nazi because of his accent. Then she learns that he is a German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany via Shanghai. Together, they embark on another journey through American prejudice, this time as a mixed-race couple.

Don’t let Girl Singer’s length deceive you. Carlon packs an entire world into those short pages. And what a marvelous world it is: from Harlem and the Jazz Age, to Southern racism, Nazi hatred, and finally Chinese-Jewish culture. The sounds of jazz, of nightclubs and dance halls and the swinging beat of New York, are written so eloquently that the reader can almost feel the rhythm rumble off the pages like an improvised jazz note. This is an incredible novel that works as both a lesson on jazz music and the people who created it, and as a window into American racism and hatred. A fast read, but a don’t-miss, must-read book.

This book is an Editors’ Choice book for May 2016 with the Historical Novels Review

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Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/girl-singer/

Book Review: Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

reevesRoscoe Martin is infatuated with two things: his wife and electricity. Both end up ruining him as a husband and father, and destroy his sense of self. In rural Alabama during the 1920s, both loves become out of reach when Roscoe’s wife moves the family back to her father’s farm. Resentment festers, and Roscoe realizes that there’s one thing he can do to salvage his marriage: electrify the farm in hopes of turning it profitable. Everything goes well until a worker with Alabama Power stumbles upon Roscoe’s illegal tap on the power grid and is killed. Roscoe is sentenced to prison, and from there he watches his family drift further away while he loses more of himself. It is only after he leaves prison that he understands who he really is, and what price he really has to pay for his crimes real and imaginary.

Reeves has a talent for haunting, beautiful prose. Her Alabama is rich and vibrant, from the coal mines to rural farms and into the depths of Kilby Prison. The novel is told in two parts – Roscoe in jail in the present, and on the farm in the past – and there were times I couldn’t help but find near-similarities between Roscoe in Kilby to Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Roscoe curries favor with the guards and warden, his friend works in the woodshop and longs to see the ocean, and Roscoe works in the library and helps illiterate inmates read. This is understandable, though, since prisons offer limited work opportunities for inmates, and there are also unique aspects, such as Roscoe’s work with search dogs. The ending seems improbable for Jim Crow/Depression-era Alabama and almost hard to accept. This nice debut work has solid writing, but some structural issues keep it from being an amazing debut.

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Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/work-like-any-other/