Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Grab-Bag of Reviews

As the May issue of the Historical Novels Review is in subscribers' hands now, I'm posting some of my reviews from it. (Readers of this blog will probably like The Four Queens in particular.)

A Treasury of Regret
Susanne Alleyn, Thomas Dunne Books, 2007, $24.95/C$31.00, hb, 288pp, 9780312343712

When investigator Aristide Ravel enters the office of his local police commissariat, he's met by Laurence Dupont, a young woman determined to clear the name of a family servant. Jeannette Moineau has been arrested on charges of feeding her bourgeois employers poisoned food—fatally, in the case of the family patriarch, the miserly moneylender Martin Dupont. Ravel's ensuing investigation, conducted in the tense, economically troubled atmosphere of 1797 Paris, turns up no shortage of suspects—and a surprising link between Ravel and Laurence.

A Treasury of Regret combines the best in history and mystery. Rather than treating revolutionary Paris simply as window-dressing, Alleyn makes good use of the historical setting, both in creating her plot and in creating her characters, several of whom have lost loved ones to the guillotine. The mystery itself is artfully plotted and compelling; I was in due suspense as to whodunit.

This is Alleyn's second mystery featuring Ravel, though it's not necessary to have read the previous book, Game of Patience, to enjoy A Treasury of Regret.

***

Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers
Barbara Hambly, Bantam Books, 2007, $25.00/C$30.00, hb, 431pp, 9780553804287

Patriot Hearts tells the stories of four women: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sally Hemings, and Dolley Madison. It opens in 1814, with Dolley Madison getting ready to escape from an about-to-be-burned President's House and cuts back and forth in time and between the four central characters, who are linked to each other in a number of ways.

Hambly's characterizations are vivid, and she writes exceptionally well, with a wry sense of humor that made me chuckle aloud at times. She's obviously done her research, and she handles the delicate issue of slavery deftly and sensitively.

Nonetheless, I found this book to be somewhat frustrating, for several reasons. The constant leaping back and forth between characters and times, while certainly an authorial tour de force, made it difficult for me to maintain my focus and to keep my interest. Also problematic is the swarm of minor characters. Sometimes, as with Sally Hemings' family, they play a useful role, both in the plot and thematically, but in other cases, they served only to bog the reader down in minutia. Martha Washington in particular was lost to me, at least in the early chapters, amid an ever-shifting panorama of friends and relations, many of whom make only one appearance, and only as part of the landscape. Finally, Hambly's stylistic choice to make all four women central characters, while it did have the advantage of showing their interconnections and their shared struggles, ultimately prevented her from developing each of their individual stories as much as I would have liked.

Despite these reservations, Hambly vividly brings these four very different women to life. For illuminating a side of the presidency that often gets neglected by textbooks—the domestic—she is to be commended.

***

The Wednesday Wars
Gary D. Schmidt, Clarion Books, 2007, $16, hb, 272pp, 0618724834

As the only Presbyterian in his seventh-grade class in Long Island in 1967-68, Holling Hoodhood has to spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while his Jewish classmates go to Hebrew school and his Catholic classmates to catechism. Mrs. Baker, whose husband is fighting in Vietnam, has Holling pass his Wednesday afternoons reading Shakespeare. It's an assignment that will lead to the unfortunate Holling meeting Mickey Mantle while dressed in yellow tights, but that also leads to Holling gaining insight about life and love—and about Holling himself.

Narrated by Holling, this is a fast-paced book with appealing characters, particularly Holling himself. (I did find it unlikely, however, that a seventh-grader named "Holling Hoodhood" didn't spend more time fending off bullies.) Though the tone is primarily humorous, Schmidt skillfully blends in the more serious aspects of the story, such as the effect of the war on several characters and the upheavals within Holling's own family. The end result is a funny, touching novel of one boy's journey toward adulthood. Ages 10-14.

***

The Lincolns in the White House: Four Years That Shattered a Family
Jerrold M. Packard, St. Martin's Griffin, 2006, $14.95 /C$19.95, pb, 290pp, 0312313039

Like most American schools at the time, mine spent a lot of time on the Civil War, but concentrated on causation and battles rather than personalities. In The Lincolns in the White House, Jerrold Packard takes a different approach. While politics, battles, and key administration figures are not neglected, Packard's main focus is on the Lincolns as a family.

Packard deals with varied subjects like Lincoln's relationships with his sons, Mary Lincoln's out-of-control spending and growing eccentricity, the nature of the relationship between Lincoln and Joshua Speed, and Mary Lincoln's post–White House life. Drama, however, does not get sacrificed in the process: Packard's account of the last days of Lincoln's life, foregone as its conclusion is, nonetheless had me on the edge of my seat.

The author paints vivid pictures of nineteenth-century Washington, D.C. (hot and humid in summer, cold in winter, and unhealthy all year round), of the shabby White House, and of the Soldiers' Home where the Lincolns found a welcome summer retreat. There are also tidbits here that I found fascinating; one, for instance, being that the Department of the Treasury employed female clerks.

Though I suspect that nothing in this book will be new to Lincoln scholars, for a general reader, The Lincolns in the White House tells a compelling story.

***

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe
Nancy Goldstone, Viking, 2007, $24.95 /C$31.00, hb, 334pp, 9780670038435

Four Queens is the fascinating story of four thirteenth-century sisters, all destined to become royal: Marguerite, Queen of France; Eleanor, Queen of England; Sanchia, Queen of the Romans; and Beatrice, Queen of Sicily.

Goldstone depicts these four very different women, the men they married, the society they lived in, and the many other players on the European and Middle Eastern stage in a lively, readable, and highly accessible style. As someone who was familiar with some of the events of the time, but not at all with others, I found this to be an excellent introduction to them. (For those wishing to delve further into the period, Goldstone provides a helpful bibliographic note.)

Four Queens is also impressive for what it doesn't do. Though we never lose sight of the limitations gender imposed upon these women's lives, Goldstone doesn't belabor the point, as a lesser writer might have done, for instance, in the case of Sanchia, the sister who was the least successful at influencing events. Her treatment of her subjects, female and male alike, is sympathetic yet clear-eyed, a characteristic especially apparent in her summing up of the careers of Louis IX of France and Henry III of England.

This was one work of nonfiction I would have been happy to have lingered over longer.

5 comments:

Marg said...

The Four Queens does sound interesting!

Alianore said...

I'm really looking forward to reading Four Queens - I think it looks great, and I was astonished to see it has a 1-star and a 3-star review on Amazon UK.

Word verif: icxzima. Clearly a painful medieval skin disease.

Gabriele C. said...

What only proves that half of the Amazon reviewers don't know a thing about books. They probably expected a boddice ripper. :)

Alison said...

Four Queens has caught my imagination too.

As an aside, have you come across 'Prince Rupert The Last Cavalier' by Charles Spencer? I've always loved Prince Rupert and I've heard good things about this book so far.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Alison, I haven't seen this one. I'll have to keep an eye out for it!