between two hearts

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (published as Sophia’s Secret in the UK)

My Nook is still trying to figure out what I like, so I’m trying to give it a push in the right direction by searching for books similar to my favorites. Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea turned up as a Diana Gabaldon read-alike, so I was duly intrigued. I love Gabaldon and eighteenth century Scotland (when it was still a bit wild and rebellious), and I had been experiencing some serious withdrawal with regards to both. The Winter Sea did not disappoint.

The story moves swiftly  between the lives of writer, Carrie McClelland, and Sophia Paterson, a young woman who is sheltered by the Countess of Erroll at Slains Castle. Working on a new novel, Carrie is drawn to Slains during a weekend trip to Scotland, feeling that there is something about the place that will make her new novel come to life. Centuries before, Sophia is also drawn to Slains Castle after the death of her uncle leaves her without a guardian. A newcomer in a strange place, Sophia soon finds herself welcomed by the Castle’s residents and becomes enmeshed in a series of events that have both personal and political implications as loyal Scots, and friends to the Count and Countess of Slains, take part in a plot to restore Prince Charles to the thrown.

Initially, I questioned the dual time frame, but when the connection between Carrie and Sophia emerged, I found myself enjoying the novel more and more. Both timelines are fully realized, as are the characters that people them, so neither plot feels lacking. While not as fast paced as Outlander, Kearsley’s narrative style soon had me craving more (hello, Nook wishlist).


The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters has fast become one of my favorite writers. I never seem to go wrong with one of her works–they are richly descriptive, with fully realized characters, settings, and complex plots. The Night Watch is no exception. Taking a different route, Waters spins this tale in retrospect, taking the reader back in time through the relationships and personal histories of a troubled cast of characters, amid the backdrop of WWII England. The storylines are subtle and clues often have to be inferred as the reader catches glimpses of the events and experiences that brought Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan together, however briefly. As these individuals experience the disorienting reality of wartime, their stories become loosely intertwined. As a result, the narratives often seem more like vignettes than a connected plot. This might be disorienting for some readers, but can also prove captivating as details are revealed and relationships unraveled in reverse.

In a sense, the narrative reads like a series of journals or letters discovered long after the events outlined have occurred. The reader is like a historian seeking answers and traveling back in time through other people’s experiences. While not my favorite Waters novel (that honor still goes to Fingersmith), this was another great read with plenty of historical detail.

Dreams of Joy

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Summer time has sort of become multicultural novel time for me. I never quite mean it to happen this way, but I have noticed that I tend to explore cross-cultural genres more often during the summer. I suppose it’s because I tend to spend more time in libraries around this time, mostly because I start to lose patience with my TBR pile after so many months of sticking to my so-called reading goals (or as I like to think of it, reading through the books that have spent a shameful amount of time gathering dust). This time, I traveled to the early years of Red China with Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy.

See’s novel explores all the rashness and idealism of being nineteen, introducing the reader to communist China through American-born Joy’s hopes and often irrational motivations. Picking up where Shanghai Girls leaves off, Joy rushes headfirst into a journey that takes her away from the close familiarity of China Town into the homeland that her mothers abandoned during the Japanese invasion of China. Clearly out of place, Joy tries to fit in, dutifully abiding by the laws of the regime, with all the eagerness of a girl who desperately wants to ignore the error she made.

In some ways, Dreams of Joy is more harrowing in its description of strife and despair than Shanghai Girls, but both novels manage to retain a thread of hope and contentment, if not outright happiness in the experience of growing up and finding one’s place.

Overall, one of the best books I read this summer.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig

I was in the mood for something fun, but didn’t want to pick something from my scattered collection of TBR books. A library trip was in order and Lauren Willig hit the spot.

Visiting her boyfriend Colin’s historical home, Eloise–grad student and history sleuth–takes a research detour when she uncovers the personal correspondence of Lady Charlotte Lansdowne. While not directly related to her dissertation topic on the history of the Pink Carnation, Eloise is intrigued when reads a line about the King’s madness (George the Third, that is) while browsing through the letters. Wondering what Charlotte Lansdowne could have to do with the King’s madness, Eloise becomes absorbed in a tale of decadence, intrigue, and betrayal.

Considered a bookish little mouse by her domineering grandmother and the male members of the ton, Charlotte Lansdowne never expected to find the sort of adventure and romance that she so enjoyed in her favorite novels, but that is just what she finds when her dashing cousin Robert, the erstwhile Duke of Dovedale returns from his self-imposed exile in India. Suddenly, Charlotte finds that even the most unlikely character has the potential to become a romantic heroine.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine is the 5th novel in Willig’s Pink Carnation, Regency spy series. I didn’t realize this until I started reading the book, but I found that I had no problem following the storyline despite the series order snafu. For the most part, references to prior installments in the series were minor and did not affect my enjoyment if the book as a single installment. Also, while it’s been a while since I read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I didn’t find that I needed to refer to the first installment to follow Eloise’s story.

I thought Charlotte was a great character. She’s bookish, smart, and knows her own mind. She’s the sort of person who is frequently underestimated by her peers simply because she doesn’t participate in the usual comings and goings of fashionable society. But most of all, I liked her because she reminded me of …well… me. She’s the sort of whimsical and imaginative person that people overlook because they assume she is a bit oblivious to the happenings of the great, busy world. Except, she’s not. Charlotte is an unlikely heroine because she is the sort of person that no one would ever consider observant enough to bother with, though she is eminently observant of her surroundings. It was her ability to surprise everyone with her intelligence and intrepidness that made this a great read for me.

I am definitely going to look for the other books in the series now that I have skipped ahead. I would love to get to know Henrietta and Miles further, as well as that troublesome yet charming Frenchman.

The Hollow

The Hollow, Part 1: Lucinda by John Scudamore

I received a copy of The Hollow to review for The Historical Novel Society Online. I generally choose books that might interest me when the selection list goes around, and this one was described as an Austen-like romance with timeslip elements. I though, I like timetravel fiction. I like Austen. I’ll choose that one as one of my possibilities.

When it arrived, I was duly intrigued by the cover and the back blurb. I started reading it right away.

While not perfect, I was pleasantly surprised by the novel and found myself absorbed by the Scudamore’s treatment of female sexuality. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

If I had to describe this book in one sentence, this is what I would say: It’s a Regency Romance that is more Sarah Waters than Jane Austen.

It’s not perfect, there are anachronisms in the language and description, but the dialog is interesting and raises all kinds of thoughts about female self-discovery for all its lack of perfect, Regency polish.

The narrative follows the sexual awakening of Celia and Lucy, cousins and friends learning how to navigate the strictures that society places on ladies of good breeding. Joined by Alice, Celia’s faithful and knowledgeable maid, these two begin to learn about all those things that make them “tingle”.

That’s one side of the story… The other side involves the Hollow, a place of evil according to local legend, and the arrival of Manfred–a perfectly ordinary twenty-first century physicist who suddenly finds himself transported to Regency England.

Manfred stirs up plenty of trouble in his ignorance of Regency manners, but his involvement in the plot almost seems like an afterthought. That said, I haven’t read the next two books in the trilogy, so I can’t be sure how his part will evolve in the series, but I was much more intrigued by the relationship between Celia, Alice, and Lucy before Manfred became involved in their affair.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel. This is an independently published novel; there were a few typographical errors, but these were few and far between, so they weren’t distracting. I think this might be more appealing to fans of Sarah Waters and Diana Gabaldon than Austen (there is plenty of steamy, feminine romance).

You can find The Hollow, Part 1 at The Book Depository.

Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Nancy never imagined her life would amount to much; as an oyster girl in her family’s shop, she spends her days covered in brine, shucking oysters and serving up oyster teas. The highlight of Nancy’s week is going to the local theater to watch the acts, but there is one act that strikes her like no other. When Nancy first sees Kitty Butler’s masher act, she finds herself yearning for something she can’t quite name. What does it mean that she feels a pull every time she sees Kitty? Nancy doesn’t know, but she begins to visit the theater regularly to watch Kitty perform. When Tony, her sister’s beau and the friend who gets Nancy into the shows for free, tells her that Kitty wants to meet the girl in the box, Nancy is arrested with nerves. It is a meeting that changes the course of her life forever and places Nancy on a path that will take her far from the oyster barrels of Whistable shore.

I first learned about Tipping the Velvet when I was working on an essay on female bildungsroman… it was a proposal for an imaginary thesis that I never did write, but the idea always stuck and I’ve been especially intrigued by such stories ever since. Tipping the Velvet is just such as story, the coming-of-age of Nancy Astley, oyster girl from Whistable, into a proud “tom” who finds that she be exactly who she wants to be.

From the very beginning, I can just imagine an elderly Nancy telling her tale to an enthralled audience, her stage skills evoking a sense of drama in her listeners and making them wonder at the highs and lows of her journey from obedient oyster girl to inadvertent Socialist. I watched the film adaptation of the novel last year, and though I sometimes feel that watching the film first detracts from my reading experience (being spoiled in advance and all), Nancy’s unique narrative voice kept me engaged in the story despite my knowing where the plot was going.

I still find that Fingersmith is my favorite Waters novel, but Tipping is now a close second.

On a side note… I started reading A Tale of Two Cities but it hasn’t really grabbed me yet. Can someone sell me on this read? I haven’t had many good experiences with Dickens, but I remember liking a film version of this when I was in high school and wanted to give it a shot. Should Dickens and I part ways, or should I keep reading?

Paris 1934

Paris 1934: Victory in Retreat by Paul A. Myers

Sandrine Durand is a vibrant young student and journalist covering the political and fashion scenes of Paris in 1934. Working for both a French and an American paper, Sandrine sees two sides to every story, reporting the straight facts for the Americans and the details for the French. Saucy and flirtatious, Sandrine is coming into her own and establishing her independence amidst the free-thinking citizens of Paris, but she is no ingenue. When opportunity strikes, Sandrine takes it.

The novel’s rich detail evokes lively, early 20th century photographs of Parisian cafe scenes and cityscapes, bringing the era to life. The novel opens with mounting political turmoil, but Sandrine’s presence adds a fun and lively quality to the story, balancing the dryer facts of the historical events that serve as the novel’s background. Sandrine’s French and American friends prove to be just as lively and intriguing as the hopeful journalist; the energetic bistro scenes between Sandrine and the American journalists at the Oasis were some of my favorite moments in the novel.

The first half of the novel takes some time to develop; much of the action revolves around a series of civil uprisings that occurred in Paris early in 1934. The story picks up when Sandrine and her friends are introduced. I found that I enjoyed the social aspects of the novel more than the political history, but I appreciated the insight that the historical details provided as I was unfamiliar with the history of Paris’s pre-WWII politics.

I received a review copy of Paris 1934 from the Historical Novel Society Online. HNS Online publishes a quarterly column on self-published and author subsidized publications. Paris 1934 can be purchased from

On a side note… to avoid any self-plagiarism issues that might arise, I’m going to hold off on posting the reviews I’ve written for my class readings until grades are in.

Also, I’m playing around with my review format… I think adding the title at the beginning of the post rather than in the review will make the reviews more search and reader friendly.

The Slave Dancer

I am taking a class on multicultural materials for children and young adults, and the first assignment is to read two selections related to African-American culture. I don’t usually post on the readings that I complete for school, but since these are mostly YA books, I thought they might be of interest. My first selection from the reading list was Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer.

When his mother asks him to fetch some candles from his Aunt’s house, Jessie Bollier did not imagine that he would soon find himself aboard a slaver bound for Africa. Pressed into service, Jessie is captured for his skills as a fife player; Captain Cawthorne needs a slave dancer, and he is going to have to play that part or face the consequences of defiance. Aboard The Moonlight, Jessie learns much about the cruelties of the slave trade, and the evils that drive men to torment one another without cause. Though disgusted by the situation aboard the ship, Jessie is unprepared to witness the horrors that accompany the trafficking of slaves. Tormented by his role as slave dancer, Jessie comes to hate everyone aboard the ship–the captain, the crew, the slaves, and himself–everyone that reminds him of his helplessness. But when the ship is wrecked during a storm, Jessie finds the strength to swim to freedom in the company of a young slave boy. Jessie soon learns to communicate with the boy and finds a way to deal with the consequences of his life-altering journey aboard The Moonlight.

I found that Jessie’s story does not focus on the experience of the slaves as much as on his perception of the twisted sense of morality and justice that drives his fellow crew members.  While the narrative is grim, Fox does not dwell too much on the conditions of the slaves. The amount of description is appropriate for the intended 10-14 year old audience, and the issues raised by Jessie’s account can serve as a conversation starter for a discussion on ethics and compassion.

A piece of history

As the end of the semester nears, I am finding myself spending more time reading academic writing, but I managed to squeeze in Pamela de Leon’s The Savage River Valley, which I received for review for the Historical Novels Review Online.

My official review will be published by HNR online, but here is a more personal reaction.

When I started reading The Savage River Valley, I did not think I was going to enjoy it. I found myself losing patience with the meandering tone of the preface/first chapter, but the narrative soon picked up after the second chapter. The blurb on the back cover makes the story sound like a paranormal historical novel–Clara, a woman from 21st century New York spiritually travels back in time to the year 1601 to witness a Mohican death ceremony.  However, Clara’s spiritual quest reads like a secondary subplot, rather than the focus of the novel. The narrative really comes alive when the reader is introduced to the Mohicans, particularly the children of Tah-neh-wa–Minnah and White Feather. The description of Mohican life is rich in detail and well-written. Minnah is an interesting and sympathetic character, her ability to see beyond the mundane allowing her to perceive the bonds that connect her family to the land and the danger that will come from across the great water.

De Leon also adds an element of mystery to the tale, shifting the narrative from life among the Mohicans to life aboard a Dutch trading vessel bound for the shores of the Hudson, the greed, scorn, and lust of the sailors a marked contrast to the Mohican’s harmonious, co-existence.

I have mixed feeling about the novel; I found myself engrossed by the historical plot, but felt that Clara’s part in the narrative seemed superfluous. I would have preferred the novel without the spiritual quest. It reminds me of when I watched “Julie and Julia,” I preferred the Julia without the Julie.

A secret desperate to be told

Do you mean to say, that if I believe in your story as you have told it, then it is as good as if it were true?

– from The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

What if Jane Austen’s long lost memoirs were waiting to be discovered, tucked away behind an attic wall at Chawton Manor House? What if Austen’s romantic heros were inspired by someone who was dear to her? That is the premise behind Syrie James’s beautifully written, fictional memoir. Carefully weaving together details from Austen’s letters and novels, as well as early biographical accounts of Austen’s life, James makes the reader believe that this tale of love found and lost really was written by Austen herself in the months leading up to her untimely death.

I’m in a bit behind on school work at the moment, so this review is shorter than most.

The Lost Memoirs was a truly engrossing read and made me yearn to re-read Sense and Sensibility after reading about Jane’s struggle to edit what would be her first published novel. I was eager to read this book after reading The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë and I was just as pleased with James’s treatment of Austen’s memoirs as I was with Brontë’s diaries. Overall, a great tribute to the life of Jane Austen and a worthy addition to any collection of Austenesque works.