Friday, May 29, 2009

Some Recent Historical Fiction Reads

Here are reviews of mine that appeared in the February 2009 Historical Novels Review:

A Constant Heart
Siri Mitchell, Bethany House, 2008, $13.99 pb, 384pp, 9780764204319

Facing an arranged marriage to the Earl of Lytham, a stranger, seventeen-year-old Marget is reassured somewhat when her betrothed sends her an astrolabe and a romantic sonnet. Yet when Marget meets her husband at last, the earl, still embittered from his first marriage to a beautiful, unfaithful wife, is barely civil to his new countess. Life is no better at Queen Elizabeth’s court, where the newcomer Marget is shunned.

Determined to win the affection of her husband by proving herself useful to him in his frantic quest for royal favor, Marget becomes friends with Lady de Winter, who advises Marget that in order to make her way at court, Marget must obscure her natural beauty with layers of white paint. Slowly, Marget finds acceptance among the queen’s ladies—but is Lady de Winter acting in her best interests?

Mitchell vividly depicts the atmosphere of Elizabeth’s court, as poisoned by jealousy, back-biting, and intrigue as are the women who damage their looks and their health with lead paint. Her newlyweds, struggling to build a successful relationship with each other and to maintain their integrity in a setting that is hardly conducive to such goals, provide an interesting—and fresh--perspective on a familiar period.


Bedlam South
Mark Grisham and David Donaldson, State Street Press, 2008, $24.95 hb, 324pp, 9780764204319

In 1863, Alabama native Dr. Joseph Bryarly reluctantly accepts an invitation from a family friend, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to leave his post at London’s notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital to become Chief Superintendent of Wingate Asylum in Richmond, Virginia. Meanwhile, young Zeke Gibson gleefully joins the Army of Northern Virginia, where he is reunited with his older brother, Billy, a corporal. The Battle of Gettysburg, however, soon sends the Gibson brothers in separate directions, while nightmare-plagued Joseph finds that he has exchanged the living hell of London’s Bedlam for that of Richmond’s Bedlam South.

Co-written by childhood friends who utilized the novel to blend their interests in psychology and the Civil War, Bedlam South has all of the elements of a wartime epic as it moves with ease between battlefields, the asylum, gracious and humble homes, prisons, bordellos, and city streets, with episodes that show its men and women at their worst--and at their best. It’s a fast-paced and well-plotted story, with a varied and large cast of characters, sympathetic and complex protagonists, a couple of romances, and some staggering coincidences. I recommend it highly.


The Ancient Ocean Blues
Jack Mitchell, Tundra Books, 2008, $9.95/C$11.99 pb, 188pp, 9780887768323

Though young Marcus Oppius Sabinus is less than thrilled when his cousin Gaius sends him on a spy mission, Marcus does find this preferable to helping Gaius in his everyday business of buying elections through bribery. Soon, therefore, he’s traveling to Athens, in the company of a Greek publisher and Marcus’s fiancée, Paulla (who stows away in hopes of improving her acquaintance with the heroic Aulus Lucinus Spurinna, not for the pleasure of Marcus’s company). Needless to say, smooth sailing does not lie ahead.

Narrated in a breezy, humorous style by Marcus, this was a fun read in which the carefully researched history went down painlessly and where the historical figures (including Gaius Oppius) easily mixed with the fictitious ones, several of whom first appeared in Mitchell’s previous novel, The Roman Conspiracy. I especially enjoyed Paulla, a connoisseur of romances who turns out to be anything but a starry-eyed romantic. Young adults, even those not normally interested in the ancient world, will find this an engaging read.


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1 comment:

NovelEagle said...

Bedlam South sounds interesting and, for me, familiar. I look forward to reading it. Fine review. Thank you.

Peggy Ullman Bell,
A novel of women at Gettysburg