Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 2.75 of 5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River. This historical mystery tale begins when a wounded stranger enters The Swan pub carrying what appears to be a waxen doll and is told like a fairytale. The mystery begins when the doll turns out to be a little girl who seems dead only to come to life setting tongues wagging in the village and villages up and down the Thames. Who is the little girl? Two families seem to claim her but there is a cruel plot afoot. With elements of the supernatural balanced by the scientific logic of a Rita, the local nurse and Henry Daunt, a skilled photographer and the girl’s rescuer, some mysteries are solved and some endings are happy.
The first third of Once Upon a River moves a bit slowly as the reader is acquainted with the characters and the local lore but after Part One the story moves along while not quickly, more steadily with as many twists and unexpected connections as the river itself. It was these twists that kept me reading, eager to learn exactly where the girl had come from. Personally, as the daughter of a photographer, I was most fascinated by the Victorian era photography methods and Taunt’s character.

If you enjoy the Victorian era feel of the Once Upon a River but wished there was more fantasy in it, I highly recommend the superior Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  It is quite a tome so it is a bit of a commitment to read it but it is so worth it.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: Transcription

TranscriptionTranscription by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

On Goodreads.com, a two-star rating means “it was OK” and, for me, that’s what Kate Atkinson’s Transcription was – just OK.  Transcription is the story of a young British woman recruited in what I would call domestic espionage during World War II. In the months leading up to the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, she is employed as a transcriber, listening to the recorded conversations between an MI5 agent posting as Gestapo and several (who knew there were so many!) Nazi sympathizers and supporters of appeasement.
The book tells of how the subterfuge and ambiguity of her job and that of those around her messes with Juliet’s mind and how her experiences during the war shape her post-war life. The narrative, which mainly moves between 1940 and 1950, is purposely vague at times, making it feel like one of Juliet’s transcriptions – missing sometimes vital information and often unclear about who is who. The subject matter of Transcription is truly interesting but the execution left me lacking any connection to the characters and often lost in the muddle of names – real names, code names, undiscernable characters. I also found that the storyline of the 1950s tended to drag at moments, which I suppose was the point – to demonstrate how mundane life could be for those who found excitement, albeit horrific, during the war. So, in short, Transcription is well-written as a look at how everything yet nothing changes during war and peace, but it really just wasn’t my thing.

This is where I would normally make a recommendation based on the book I’ve just reviewed but having gone back through seven years of my reading, I can’t think of anything I’ve read that is like Transcription.  However, as I read the novel, a few other books did come to mind.  Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, in large part, about the terror and confusion life during the Blitz, is an excellent read with a thrilling twist.  Some of the bleakness and lack of trust to be found Juliet’s world brought to mind George Orwell’s seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit

Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit (Kopp Sisters, #4)Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit by Amy Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some things never change and some things change all too slowly. That’s the message I got from the latest installment of Amy Stewart’s brilliant Kopp Sisters series. In Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit Constance is unwillingly caught in the middle of a contentious political campaign as every move she makes in her job as the sole female deputy in Hackensack, NJ in 1916 reflects on the Sherriff’s run for Congress as well as the candidate looking to fill his position as Sherriff. In the midst of it all, she works to help her inmates as well as a woman committed to the asylum by her husband. It is a time when ALL of the power belongs to men with little understanding of women’s unique issue and even less desire to understand them. It is also a time of mounting fear and suspicion as World War I rages in Europe and the US debates whether to join the Allies. In spite of the 100+ years that have passed, some of the themes seem all too familiar.
As ever, Stewart seamlessly blends history with fiction while staying true to her richly developed characters. There is a bit more politics and a bit less chasing bad guys than in the first two books but the story is fantastic, leaving you wanting to know what happens next. Luckily, the fifth book in the series is due out next year!

I know that by now I’m repeating myself but I LOVE these books so if you enjoy empowering stories about strong women and historical fiction, read the entire series and get hooked like me.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: When Winter Comes

When Winter ComesWhen Winter Comes by V.A. Shannon

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I never thought I’d choose to read a book about the Donner Party but my love of history and historical fiction had me signing up for an ARC of When Winter Comes from NetGalley. I understand that it is a work a fiction meant to make one think about a moment of American history that in our time has become more of a punchline than the cautionary tale and analysis of human nature and the will to survive that it should be. No one will ever know exactly what happened because like everyone, the survivors have their own demons, coping methods, and prejudices that skew the retellings but Shannon’s descriptive writing puts the reader on that mountain with the pioneers. I found, at times, that it moved slowly but then so did the journey and other times I was simply loath to read on, knowing what was coming but unsure of how descriptive the crucial passages would be. When Winter Comes is a good, interesting read even if the main character, as likable as she is, is just a bit blah.

If you enjoy When Winter Comes and other stories from the United States’s formative years, I recommend Larry Bjornson’s excellent Wide Open which centers on Wild Bill Hickok’s later years when he was Marhsal of Abilene, Kansas and, like When Winter Comes is narrated from the viewpoint of a teenager.

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Halloween, Historical Fiction, Reader's Rights, Reviews

Sometimes You Just Need to Give Up

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow

Maybe it is the years of reading for school that drill into us this compulsion to finish every book even when we aren’t enjoying it.  I am only now, nearly twenty years past my last Summer Reading assignment, able to simply put a book aside or give up reading it altogether when I’m not enjoying it.  I still feel a little guilty but then I just start another – hopefully, more enjoyable – book and the guilt fades.  Other times circumstances help make the decision for you.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo

When NetGalley gave me the opportunity to read The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, I was thrilled because I’d been intrigued when I saw it on Goodreads and because I love Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I quickly got over my excitement. The narrative is slow, the main character, Katrina, is spoiled and annoying, and the language which is supposed to read as historical just feels stilted and unnatural. But I read some reviews that said that it got better so I forged ahead. The first half of the novel, at least, is a cloying romance between Ichabod and Katrina. And then it was repetitive. I just could not get into it when there were so many other books to be read so I was considering abandoning this one when the lending period ended. So…maybe it does eventually get better, which would explain all of the great reviews The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has received, but I’ll probably never know because I wasn’t even interested in finding out what happens.

I don’t have a recommendation but I am reading another historical fiction from NetGalley.  V.A. Shannon’s When Winter Comes is based on an actual historical event  – the journey of the Donner party of all things! – rather than a work of fiction but so far it is a much more exciting and interesting read.

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