Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon Historical/fiction/science/romance … this book has it all. Which could be good, if that’s what you’re looking for, but I mostly found it distracting. Like most jack-of-all-trades, McMahon is a master of none of these genres, and should focus on her strengths: strong female characters dealing with early-feminist issues. Instead, The Alchemist’s Daughter gets bogged down in the science. Yes, she is an alchemists daughter, but I don’t need or want to read the detailed steps they take to grind down powders, combine them with other powders, wait for the stars to align, and hope to create something new. It got old very quickly.
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
I have to admit that I’m not a huge Philippa Gregory fan. I think she sensationalizes history too much, and she’s a little too flexible with her hard facts in order to accomodate the more salacious story. Having said that, I will say that I really enjoyed her newest book, The White Queen. Of course it follows my favorite story of all time (the War of the Roses) and is decidedly pro-York while still showcasing the difficulties of decided on a “side” in that bloody civil war. Told from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, the author does an excellent job of humanising a woman who is traditionally demonized (by both sides!). The witchcraft-ery I could have done without, but overall this was a well-told story that follows the famous plot lines but from a unique viewpoint. (But I would still recommend Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour over this.) Oh, also … I totally hate this cover. It defeats the purpose of the historical fiction cover genre, which is to enable you to imagine yourself as the heroine! Bring back the headless bodice!
Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare
I can only imagine that an author with the last name of “Shakespeare” has some great expectations to live up to. Luckily, Nicholas’ writing is definitely up to snuff. Set in an obscure Tasmanian town, this tale follows a story of young love after the “happily ever after” turns sour over the inability to conceive, the threat of a handsome young man, and the flickering hope of what might have been. It’s an excellent story that hovers just about the edge, allowing the characters to develop and grow in realistic directions. You spend the entire novel waiting for the big screaming drama, but when it arrives it’s more of a sigh or whisper … it’s more real than reality in that way. I loved this book, but it left me unsettled, but in a very, very good way.
Enemies of the Heart by Rebecca Dean
I don’t think this book is available in the US, and perhaps for good reason. It’s a saga, and so bound to be somewhat overblown, but this soap-opera that follows two cousins from 1914 to 1944 in England and Germany sinks under the weight of its very elaborate and striking evening gowns. I have never read a book where the author is so obsessed with clothes. She must have learned it as a trick at a writing camp: “If you’re ever stuck as to how to set the scene, simply describe what the characters are wearing. It works every time!” At first it was kind of cute to see the fashions change, but after about 100 pages I felt like I was reading a fashion magazine. And not to mention that both of the cousins marry Germans, and each have 4 or 5 kids, who then proceed to date and marry each other, all while two world wars goes on … well, it’s a bit much, really. I think this was an excellent idea, but poorly executed. It would have benefited from a much tighter edit, with fewer characters, and less haute couture! (And a title that doesn’t sound like a cheesy romance novel!)
Night Villa by Carol Goodman
This “literary historical thriller” has a little bit of everything, but in this case all the bits are pretty good, so the whole package works. The author does an excellent job of catching the reader’s attention (with a campus shooting, which is a little under-dramatic in my opinion), followed by a long expedition uncovering the secrets of Herculaneum. While the latin and mythology sections slog a bit, overall it adds a bit of leavening to the spice of cult religions, crazy exboyfriends, and the drama of the Roman Empire. While I seriously doubt that any Latin Classics professor has ever lived through something this exciting, Goodman does a good job of making the slightly ridiculous sound believable. I would strongly recommend this book for an educational summer read. You can polish up your dead languages and plan your next summer vacation all at the same time!