One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that they allow me to read books that are outside my usual zone. Here are some reviews that I did for the August 2007 issue of the Historical Novels Review:
In the Company of Secrets
Judith Miller, Bethany House, 2007, $13.99 pb, 384pp, 0764202766
After kitchen maid Olivia Mott, employed by the Earl and Countess of Lanshire, is sexually menaced by the famed Chef Mallard, she suddenly finds herself bound for Pullman, Illinois, in the company of Lady Charlotte, her employers' spoiled daughter. Charlotte has her own urgent reasons for wanting to travel to America, where she supplies Olivia with a forged recommendation that allows Olivia to find work as an assistant chef at the grand Pullman Hotel—and that threatens to ensnare Olivia in a web of lies.
Olivia, the competing suitors she soon finds, and her other new acquaintances are well drawn, convincingly flawed characters. I did, however, find it jarring that fresh from her lowly position at Lanshire Hall, Olivia is every bit as well spoken as Lady Charlotte. Moreover, she would surely not use words like "missive" and "plethora" in ordinary conversation.
This aside, Miller paints an interesting picture of an 1890's "company town" where spies abound and few secrets are safe. This book is the first of a planned series set in Pullman; I'm looking forward to seeing how Olivia and her fellow characters develop.
Bob Zeller and John Beshears, Whittler's Bench Press, 2007, $24.95 pb, 371pp, 097852652X
In 1860 in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, newspaper reporter Coleman Blue makes an insistent new acquaintance: Ira Spears, an investigator for an insurance company that issues slave life insurance policies. Spears suspects fraud—and he wants a highly reluctant Blue to help him uncover the truth. What results will awaken Blue to the evil of slavery and take his life in an entirely new direction—if he lives to tell about it.
Jacob's Run is narrated by Blue, whose wry, very distinct voice, capable of handling both high comedy and high tragedy by turns, makes this novel an immense pleasure to read. His Wilmington is populated by a host of memorable characters: the depraved Tarleton family; the freedman—and slave owner—Solomon Politte and his college-educated daughter; and Blue himself, plucked from an orphanage to be raised by the proprietor of the Wilmington Standard. Secrets and unsuspected connections between characters abound. The authors vividly depict Wilmington, a city I've spent time in; reading this novel made me want to go back to look around some more.
The authors, whose joint effort has produced a cohesive narrative voice, provide a short but illuminating historical afterword. Sadly enough, the slave insurance policies that are key to the plot are not a figment of the authors' imagination; the back cover has a reproduction of a real one.