A tale of three orphans

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow two generations of orphans through their struggles, particularly two numerate women.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Late 19th/early 20th century

Giveaway: Enter to win a paperback copy of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 31st. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Australia, 1906. Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship— having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.

From a Liverpool workhouse to an Australian orphanage, and from a gold rush town to a solid municipality, this tale of three orphans brings in trauma, history, mystery, and social commentary, all within gripping and fast-moving prose. Tea Cooper’s writing illuminates and penetrates, and the plot is well-conceived.

From the water, Sydney didn’t look like much. A small, ugly town, surrounded by barren sandy coves, the trees—short and stunted—clinging to the rocks.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The three orphans are a brother and sister, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn (originally Ó Coinn), and a girl they foster, Jane Piper. Their stories are told in tandem, beginning in 1906 with nine-year-old Jane at the Maitland orphanage, whose life is covered for around a decade. The second thread covers the 1860s to 1870s, with the Quinn’s emigration from England through their life in frontier Bathurst and then to sedate Maitland.

Acumen? What was an acumen? Another A word. She hadn’t had time to look up aptitude and accountant yet, and now she had to remember acumen.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

There’s not a lot of discussion of the traumas of their disrupted families, but it’s evident in the way the characters act. Michael and Elizabeth are deliberate in their patronage of the orphanage and of individual orphans, which I read as a tacit understanding of the difficulties those young people would face. Watching the mentoring is more effective than a discussion of it.

Jane discovered there was a whole lot more to arithmetic than she thought. But most fascinating of all was Elizabeth’s abacus. Why didn’t everyone use one?

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Cooper also shows the early maturity of these kids, having the responsibility for their own survival thrust upon them early in life. It’s alway surprising to me to remember that kids in other times and/or other places have had to take on so much more than the ones in my life (or that I was).

Michael scrubbed Father MacCormick’s large white handkerchief across his face, drew in several slow breaths, and tried to remember he was a man.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Be prepared, though, if you’re sensitive: there are some fairly detailed depictions of PTSD as well. I’m not a mental health professional, but they match up to the things I’ve had psychiatrists describe (and articles out there on it). Although no one was calling it that back then, there had to be some recognition of the symptoms.

In the corner of the room, in a damp-smelling space between two cabinets, a figure huddled, knees drawn up to her chest, her hands cradling her bent head as though protecting it.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Issues of class, social norms, bigotry, and sexism are all raised by the plot and characters. In particular, both Elizabeth and Jane are numerate and trusted with accounting, which they both recognize is unusual for their sex, and Michael’s attitudes toward their abilities is contrasted by other characters, again, illuminating by example rather than discourse. Overall, the various social issues are handled sensitively.

Angry, red swollen blisters peppered her skin. His words dried in his throat. By all that was holy, something wasn’t right, and he’d be finding out what it was.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

I loved all three of these characters. Watching all of them grow and handle the challenges of their sundry lives was a pleasure. I wondered if Cooper was trying to portray Jane as neurodiverse, possibly on the spectrum, but in the historical context, no one would have termed it that way, and I’d be interested to hear if people from that community read her that way.

Numbers had a practicality, a definitive no-nonsense, no-alternatives, no-misinterpretations, black-and-white reality. She always found a certain security and comfort in the neatly lined-up columns and rows of the account ledgers.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The minor characters were also well done—the endlessly catty fellow orphan, the town gossip, the villain…well, he was a little mustache-twirly, but I enjoyed it. The backdrop of Australian history is nicely integrated as well. Despite the fact that Thomas Nelson is publishing this novel, there’s no overt Christianity aside from the cultural Catholicism of the Irish-born Quinns.

It wasn’t only Michael who disapproved of her friendship with Jing. Mr. Li thought her as much of an infidel as people believed the Celestials to be.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Tea Cooper gives a masterclass in The Girl in the Painting about how to “show rather than tell” works, and it will definitely be a book I’ll be recommending and re-reading for a long time.


Waiting for George

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tour through the New York of George Gershwin, guided by his paramour and collaborator, Kay Swift.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

Giveaway

We have 2 paperback copies of Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan up for grabs! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 12th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: One evening in 1924, Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

Mitchell James Kaplan has written a meticulously researched book, and clearly explains in the author’s note where he has deviated from historical fact, something I always appreciate from authors of historical fiction. New York City of the Jazz Age provides a roll call of celebrities, as the protagonist, Kay Swift, was married to a wealthy and prominent financier, and then became involved with George Gershwin, so she did come into contact with people whose names, unlike her own, are well known: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, Adele and Fred Astaire, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Averell Harriman, Fats Waller, Langston Hughes, George Balanchine, Richard Rogers, Lorenzo Hart, Maurice Ravel, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name quite a few, but not all. However, most of these are mere cameos, and it was a pleasure to learn about Kay herself, the first woman to have composed a produced Broadway score.

Kaplan explores themes that still resonate: the problems of cultural appropriation, the relationship of the immigrant to the US, and the inequal opportunity afforded people based on race and class. Kay’s husband, Jimmy Warburg, immigrated to the US in his youth, with the advantage of money and the disadvantage of being Jewish, albeit only by culture, and he gives insight into how many Jews underestimated Hitler. Jimmy also introduces Kay to the concept of an open marriage, only to find that he likes it more for himself than for his wife.

The book succeeds on an intellectual level, but I never quite connected with the characters. All of them seem to be held at a certain distance, even Kay, from whose point of view the story is told in a close third person. Gershwin remains an enigma. It feels as though we are going through a checklist of events rather than it feeling organic, perhaps in order to make space for all the cameos. Dorothy Parker and Adele Astaire’s cameos have a little more weight, but it feels like breadth was chosen over depth in this telling. But mostly I felt like I was waiting around for George Gershwin to show up and sweep Kay away into the glittering company he surrounded himself with.

If you’d like an overview of the New York cultural milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, Rhapsody is a good introduction, competently written and thought-provoking.


Love, healing, and betrayal

Blood and Chaos by Nicole Sallak Anderson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tragic tale soaked in mysticism and warfare set in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 398

Publisher: Literary Wanderlust

Series: Song of the King’s Heart

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical fantasy

From the publisher: Prince Ankhmakis has left his beloved Natasa for war and treacherous obstacles block his path to becoming Egypt’s last native king. He is the warrior that the men revere, and his orders are followed without question. He is strong and powerful with Natasa on his side, and the fear that breeds in those around him is more dangerous to Ankhmakis than the swords of the Greeks.

The second book in a trilogy, Blood and Chaos almost succeeds as a standalone. The pacing and story is more compelling than the first entry in the series, Origins, and if it had not stopped at point where it feels incomplete, I’d readily champion it as a very good standalone.

There was music and revelry in the distance—the sounds of men letting go of the horrors of battle.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

I’m still not convinced a reader wouldn’t be able to start with this volume, though. The reasons for Hugronaphor’s rebellion against the Ptolemaic pharaoh Philopator might be hazy, as the story begins after the fight for independence has begun, but the story is focused far more on the internal politics of Hugronaphor’s court than on the war itself. There is a good deal of backstory that would enrich a reader’s understanding of some of the characters’ motivations, but those motivations still are recapped in this installment.

The divine pair is what humanity longs for. no man should have to settle for less.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

Nicole Sallak Anderson generally does a convincing job summoning up a culture of which little is known, despite the occasional word choice that sounds a little too modern and pulls me out of the world she’s woven. The Egypt of the Ptolemaic pharaohs began in 305 BCE with the division of Alexander the Great’s empire among four of his generals. Ptolemy Philopator was the fourth of these pharaohs, and many would argue he was the beginning of the decline of the Ptolemaic kingdom. He was also the first of the Ptolemies to have his heir borne by his sister-wife.

The world yearns for a warrior to save us, and the gods send us a little, half-breed girl. Alas, even the gods can be wrong about these things.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The historic accounts of what has been called the Great Revolt of the Egyptians or the Great Theban Revolt are sparse, and the causes just as hazy in reality. The immorality of Philopator was mentioned in old sources, but probably didn’t have much affect on most Egyptian citizens. The Greeks were definitely the elite, but hellenized Egyptians could find jobs within the Ptolemaic bureaucracy. Egypt was under foreign rule, but it had been for the majority of the preceding 320 years, when Persia first conquered Egypt, with the exception of a period of 61 years well over a hundred years prior to the period of this novel

It is a sin against the goddess to govern a woman’s sexuality…It is wrong to buy women to be sex slaves and concubines…but to force a priestess of Isis to pair with a man she doesn’t love is a sin.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

However, Anderson does a good job of elaborating on what is there to make a convincing world. She recreates two primary sects, that of Isis and Set, representing love and chaos respectively, and gives each an extensive belief system. She recreates a plausible court, with many rivalries and jealousies.

You see the world different than I do. I don’t try to change you, so stop trying to change me.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The two protagonists, Ankhmakis and Natasa, are well-developed and easy to relate to, and the villains are easy to hate. There are fewer prolonged scenes of graphic sex between Ankhmakis and Natasa in this volume, which I preferred, focusing more of the spiritual connection between them outside of the physical relationship. The petulant sister-wife of Ankhmakis (a purely political union) is particularly well done, as is Eleni, Natasa’s sister, who exudes all the outraged naivete of a tweenie.

Like me, you have no power here. You serve by command of the pharaoh, and we are objects to these people. Nothing more.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

One minor character that really stands out to me is the Ethiopian general who arrives as an ally, Khaleme. As a moral outsider, he seems to have the most clear-eyed view of what is going wrong in the court, and doesn’t hesitate to call them out.

There are many types of people in the world, and each has a right to live. My men will not kill civilians.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

There is a fantastic element to these novels as well: astral travel, telepathy, psychic attacks, and precognition all make appearances. These elements are all linked to the religions of those exercising these powers, and abilities seem predicated more on discipline and practice than mere talent, although the most powerful are also those with a priestly lineage.

The world behind the world is the origin of every action on Earth. We can approach it with humility, ask to be a part of it, and co-create with the divine.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

All in all, this is an absorbing visit to a little-known and rarely discussed period of Egyptian history, and I recommend checking out this installment in the tragedy of Ankmakis.


More things in heaven and earth

A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions by J.A. Nelson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read something inspired by Hamlet, but from his best friend’s POV and set in the aftermath of Hamlet’s actions.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 416

Publisher: Quill Point Press

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

16th century Europe alt-hist


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From the publisher: Surrounded by the bodies of slain monarchs, a dying prince extracts a promise from his friend, Horatio: “Tell my story.” Rival kings of warring nations strive to lay claim to the throne, now vacant, but what will happen to the people who live there, at Helsingør’s Krogen Castle? How will Horatio preserve his honor and the prince’s legacy while surviving this murderous kingdom and the men who would rule it?

It will probably seem odd that I chose to read this book when I have never been a big fan of Hamlet. There are amazing soliloquies within the play, including the arguably best known in the English language, “To be or not to be.” I’ve taken multiple courses that have included study of the play. But I’ve never liked the eponymous “hero.”

Even the most steadfast, loyal friend could never make Hamlet walk a straight, logical line. No one could have saved him from himself, or from fate.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

So I chose this book out of a hope that I’d find something or someone more likable. I’m unchanged in my views on Hamlet; I still don’t like the guy. But starting with the survivors when the curtain fell and the reality of a rather convoluted path to the bodies all over the room which had to be explained to the new ruler was appealing.

“Pah. You know nothing about the games between a court and a new king taking his enemy’s throne. You have never seen cats claw the dogs, dogs chew the rats.”

“I’ve seen much of that. You know nothing of academia.”

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

J.A. Nelson has taken on an audacious task in retelling a play so familiar to so many, and she has chosen language that usually works to convey an echo of the Shakespearean pentameter. Occasionally, though, I found it seemed to push over the top, resulting in a reaction counter to the intent. The fact that it didn’t happen frequently is a testament to the skill with which Nelson told the story.

Failure’s cursed tendrils squeezed my heart. My legs were as weak as sea froth. Grief burrowed deeper, doubling its possession of me.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Using Hamlet’s bestie, Horatio, as the protagonist works well. It’s been a while since I last read or saw Hamlet (see “not a fan” above), but IIRC, Horatio is pretty much just a straight man for Hamlet, so it was he was a good vehicle for this expansion. Nelson does a nice job of adding backstory, character arc, and new characters to this post-Hamlet scenario. Nelson also places the story of Hamlet around 1513, with the main action of the book occurring thereafter.

Soon the massive table was crowded with disgorged boxes, their brittle organs extracted, examined, and discarded.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

This is where the alt-history part comes in. Although the play was performed as if it occurred around that time, the legend of Hamlet is much older, and there’s much debate about the extent to which Hamlet came directly from the Gesta Danorum or through other sources. In the Gesta Danorum, the Hamlet character is Amleth of Jutland, and recorded prior to the 13th century. So to make the Hamlet story actually occur in Helsingor, Zealand, Denmark, in the early 16th century, Nelson takes some interesting liberties with the actual history, as the thrones of Denmark and Norway were held by the same person both before and after 1513, Hans and then Christian II.

Reynaldo looked every bit the illegitimate spawn of a wasp and an ass. But he was not stupid.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Nelson does address that, albeit a little briefly, in her Author’s Note, acknowledging that those plot points do fall outside what facts are known. However, this alternative history doesn’t do too much violence to the real one, as Nelson chooses many actual historical circumstances to weave into her tale, giving it a high degree of verisimilitude.

A shrinking world expanding with idiots.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

However, for all the objective things right with this book, it still fell a little flat with me. I had difficulty in the beginning, when the main plot points of Hamlet are rehashed with my concomitant annoyance at Hamlet. Once that was over, I felt like things picked up a bit, but there were various plot points that I didn’t quite buy, mostly the speed at which relationships developed (positive and negative) and Horatio’s propensity for mastering skills at an unreasonably fast pace. I know time is collapsed in fiction, and I generally can overlook that compression, but there are times where the perceived time still doesn’t gel, usually when those items develop at a different pace than the other aspects of the story.

Chivalry’s stiff etiquette and battery of skills were not taught to commoners. I did not care for the challenge of honesty that Margrete favored, but I would apprentice in knighthood if that meant I could pursue her.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

If you’re a Hamlet fan, you’ll probably find more to like than I. Nelson displays considerable skill in how she crafts the language so that it resonates with Hamlet without mimicking it, and aficionados of the Bard should include it in their reading.


Even a Gilded Age heiress can’t always have what she wants

The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a steamy Gilded Age romance between an unwilling, independent American heiress and a reluctant, flat broke English Duke.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Publisher: Berkley

Series: Gilded Age Heiresses

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Gilded Age/Victorian romance

Giveaway

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From the publisher: American heiress August Crenshaw has aspirations. But unlike her peers, it isn’t some stuffy British Lord she wants wrapped around her finger–it’s Crenshaw Iron Works, the family business. When it’s clear that August’s outrageously progressive ways render her unsuitable for a respectable match, her parents offer up her younger sister to the highest entitled bidder instead.

If you love the chase in a romance with a good dose of sexual tension, this is your book. Harper St. George creates two strong-minded characters with different goals and does a pretty good job of not moving the constant mistaken interpretation of each other’s actions over the line into the ridiculous or annoying.

New York Society thrived on financial and social matches made in marriage, and one unwilling bride wasn’t going to change anything. A hundred unwilling brides wouldn’t change anything.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

There are some really nice touches to this overall predictable story (given the title, the outcome isn’t going to be much of a surprise). There are the chapter epigraphs with quotes from writers of the era (and before), such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Disraeli.

The sharp scent of gin, sweat, and cheap cigarette smoke tinged the air. People yelled to be heard over the cacophony of a hundred different conversation.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

Her detailed descriptions evoke everything from crowded and malodorous Whitechapel to the decaying grandeur of an English country house to the perfumed press of a London Season event. I’m generally not that attuned to descriptions of fashion, but St. George did a great job of describing a dress that would shock her milieu in a way that I could both envision the dress and understand the reaction.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on her mood, which changed from one minute to the next, the gown that had been delivered to their townhome last week had been far more scandalously cut than she had realized.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

The two protagonists, August (I so wanted to make it Augusta) Crenshaw and Evan Sterling, the Duke of Rothschild (I also tended to giggle at this title choice) are generally likable. Their interactions are enjoyable—the fighting couple that falls in love that can be traced back at least to The Taming of the Shrew or Much Ado About Nothing. August is modern enough for us to root for but still has the disadvantages of being a woman in the latter half of the 19th century; Evan is self-aware enough that his privileged position doesn’t alienate us.

August was the bluestocking. The one who, while pretty enough, would only marry when she could find a man who could overlook her many shortcomings. She was too opinionated. Too intelligent. Too mannish.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

What was more interesting to me was the other relationships these two had: August’s protective relationship with her little sister, who’s more astute than she gives her credit for; everyone’s relationship with August’s mother, an American Mrs. Bennet; Evan’s feelings about his brother and father; and the sweet relationship of Evan with his mother and sisters.

Bloody hell, this was to be his mother-in-law. Visions of endless holidays filled with her constant boasting stretched out before him. Perhaps bankruptcy would be worth it to avoid that fate.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

Of all of them, the most intriguing is that of August and her father. He has allowed her to be a part of his business, keeping books and evaluating financial opportunities. She feels valued to him as a result, and this burgeoning relationship with Evan complicates August’s relationship with her father in unexpected ways. This was, to me, the emotional core of the book, and it lifts this romance out of the humdrum.

My lord, although Miss Crenshaw is my daughter, she is also a trusted employee of Crenshaw Iron Works. I trust her discretion and her advice implicitly. you did say that this was a business issue?

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

If you’re not a fan of explicit sex scenes, there will be quite a few bits you’ll have to flip past, but the rest of the book makes it worthwhile. if you do like them, you should find plenty here to like.

As he held it tight, something had become clear to him. He wanted to win her on his own merit. He wanted her to choose him. And, more importantly, he did not want to hurt her.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

All in all, The Heiress Gets a Duke is an exemplary version of the love/hate romance with the commoner and a Duke, so if that’s a read you enjoy, put this one on your to-be-read list.


Polluted town, polluted lives

To The Dark by Chris Nickson

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a mystery with a strong sense of place and pacing set in Leeds in 1822.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 238

Publisher: Severn House

Series: Simon Westow

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

From the publisher: Leeds, 1822. The city is in the grip of winter, but the chill deepens for thief-taker Simon Westow and his young assistant, Jane, when the body of Laurence Poole, a petty local thief, emerges from the melting snow by the river at Flay Cross Mill. A coded notebook found in Laurence’s room mentions Charlie Harker, the most notorious fence in Leeds who’s now running for his life, and the mysterious words: To the dark. What was Laurence hiding that caused his death? Simon’s hunt for the truth pits him against some dangerous, powerful enemies who’ll happily kill him in a heartbeat – if they can.

This murder mystery is definitely atmospheric, as the darkness, pollution, and smell of industrial Leeds is hammered home. The pace is like a thrum of a machine, the beat of it steady and measured. Chris Nickson does an excellent job of creating a sense of place.

All her anger and frustration had faded, hammered down in footstep after footstep. Men would always think the worst of women. There was nothing she could do to alter their minds.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Simon Westow and Jane are living through their slow season when they are enlisted by the unfriendly constable to investigate the murder of the small-time thief. The phrase “to the dark” is repeatedly used, but the mystery is not solved—not in this book, at least, which is disappointing when it is built up as part of the focal point of the story.

She ran her fingertips over the scars on her forearm. A rising ladder of lines, the places where she’d cut herself. Her catalogue of failures, the punishments she’d inflicted.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

The characters are not all that well-developed. Simon and Jane are explained by the significant traumas in their pasts, but not much else. Rosie, Simon’s wife, is mostly a placeholder. The bad guys are pretty much all stock characters. Perhaps there will be more in later installments, but there was little depth or growth from the characters.

At their age his home was in the workhouse, every daylight hour spent working in the mill. Beaten, abused, feeling like he was going to be trapped there for the rest of his life and wanting to die so it would be over.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Despite these shortcomings, the murder mystery and the atmosphere are enough to carry the book, making it worth finishing, and the writing itself is strong enough that I’d check out another installment.