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BOOK REVIEW: The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner


edgarThe birth of Edgar Jones, sometime in the 1850s, was marked by a wonderous meteor shower. His father, a night porter at Oxford University, is sure this is a sign of a great destiny for his son but Edgar, a restless child, is more at home exploring the natural world and how things work than making sense of the words in his father’s books. When Edgar turns his back on his father’s dreams by apprenticing himself to a blacksmith, a silent détente
occurs in the family home.

Soon Edgar’s ingenuity and skill bring him to the attention of a “bone man,” a professor of anatomy at Oxford with grandiose ideas for a natural history museum. Edgar’s work on the new museum restores his father’s hopes for the future but threatens to tear the family apart as scientific progress wars with traditional beliefs.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner is a classic coming-of-age story. Mankind’s understanding of the world is rapidly changing and for many, the shifting sands of reality cause them to view scientific discoveries as heresy and view “progress” with horror. Garner’s choice of Victorian Oxford as setting allows her to use Edgar and William to mirror the conflicts waging within Oxford’s walls and, in return, show how monumental such a schism can be between parent and child.

Despite featuring prominently in the narrative of The Ingenious Edgar Jones, Edgar’s mother is a shadowy figure. Her disquiet and worries about Edgar permeates the text, yet as a character is barely developed leading readers to be frustrated at the amount of space devoted to her voice. Her role seems to be that of Cassandra, prophecizing the heinous outcome from a split between father and son and left helpless to watch the preordained outcome.

The construction of the natural history museum in The Ingenious Edgar Jones is based on Oxford University Museum, the first natural history museum in Britain which played a part in the great divide between science and religion.

ISBN10: 030740899X
ISBN13: 9780307408990

323 Pages
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: May 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes


After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII was convinced by his advisors to seek another wife. Edward’s health was precarious and a second son would be of great benefit to stability within England. Hoping to secure the Protestant faith’s footing in England, Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell suggested an alliance with the Duchy of Cleves, a Lutheran stronghold. Henry provisionally agreed and commissioned court painter Hans Holbein to paint miniatures of both Anne and Amelia, the princesses of Cleves. Amelia was on the surface the more attractive sister what Holbien saw Anne’s inner beauty and captured this in her portrait, in turn capturing the King’s eye.

Unfortunately for Anne’s happiness, she was not the King’s preferred version of beauty, being neither petite nor slender. Her height, large-boned frame and buxomness prompted the King to refer to her as a “Flanders mare.” She possessed few of the accomplishments common for women of the Tudor court, being more adept at managing a royal household. While they were duly married and Anne quickly won the heart of the people, the King’s eye had already strayed to young Katherine Howard.

Anne of Cleves is rare not only for surviving her marriage to King Henry VIII, she is one of only two of his wives to outlive him, but for speaking her mind to him. Heeding the counsel of her advisors, she agreed to an annulment on the grounds of non-consummation and in return gained her own household and continued access to Princesses Mary and Elizabeth and Prince Edward, his children by his previous three wives. In My Lady of Cleves: a novel of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, Margaret Campbell Barnes tells the story of an unusual woman who discovers herself and finds true freedom only by giving up everything and holding herself apart from the politics consuming his court.

What is intriguing about Campbell Barnes’ novel is the fascinating portrait of Princess Mary. Unlike many novels of the Tudor court which show her as a bitter and unhappy woman, Mary is here portrayed with a nurturing and mothering nature toward Edward and warm emotions toward Anne.

Originally published in 1946, My Lady of Cleves stands the test of time, introducing Henry VIII’s enigmatic fourth wife to a new generation of readers.

ISBN10: 1402214316
ISBN13: 9781402214318

Trade Paperback
331 Pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: September 1, 2008


BOOK REVIEW: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin


“All my life since Aeneas’ death might seem a weaving torn out of the loom unfinished, a shapeless tangle of threads making nothing, but it is not so; for my mind returns as the shuttle returns always to the starting place, finding the pattern, going on with it.”

Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata, enjoyed a typical girlhood as the daughter of a nobleman in the time before the founding of Rome. A life of peace and freedom that is, until the day she saw a line of great, black ships coming up the Tiber from the sea. Her mother has determined that she marry her kinsman Turnus, but the omen Lavinia received at the sacred springs tells that she is destined to marry a foreigner and start a bitter war. These ships presage the epic war for a kingdom and the founding of a great new empire, with Lavinia herself as the prize.

The arrival of the ships marks the meeting of Lavinia’s story with Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid. While Virgil’s poem tells Aeneas’ story, Lavinia herself is mentioned only once – on the day before his landing in Latinum when her hair is veiled by a ghost fire, an omen for the coming war. In Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin gives voice to an invisible heroine, brings to life an ancient world and creates a powerful companion to one of western literature’s greatest works.

Lavinia is a book of love and war, ritual and duty. Le Guin has crafted a fascinating story of Lavinia’s life in the Regia (the women’s quarters in a great house), filled with her duties as the only daughter of a noble house: keeping the storerooms; joining in the rituals of worship in the atrium; and keeping the peace between a mother driven mad with grief and a father quick to punishment. Well-researched with epic battles and many interwoven threads, Le Guin has captured the spirit of Virgil’s work and presented it faithfully in her own measured, lyric prose. Le Guin’s Lavinia is a strong, fascinating woman, with a tale to rival any hero of old.

ISBN10: 0151014248
ISBN13: 9780151014248

288 pages
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
Publication Date: April 21, 2008
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch


Victorian gentleman Charles Lenox recently assisted Scotland Yard in solving the Isabel Lewes case; a simple case the Yard should have easily solved despite their appalling lack of imagination. Now, on a bitterly cold late afternoon, all Lenox wants to do is sit in his library and enjoy the bliss of a warm fire. So when he receives an urgent message from Lady Jan Grey, his closest friend and next door neighbour, he ventures forth to brave the cold, despite his inadequate boots.

Lady Grey’s former servant, Prue Smith, has apparently committed suicide-by-poisoning at the home of her new employer George Barnard, the current director of the Royal Mint. At her request, Lenox visits the crime scene and is quickly convinced that Prue’s death is murder, despite assurances from the Yard and Barnard that it is suicide. Thomas McConnell, a surgeon and close associate of Lenox, determines the cause of death to be a rare poison called bella indigo (beautiful blue). The Yard does not welcome Lenox’s assistance which leaves him little access to the Barnard household, forcing him to investigate discreetly and utilize the services of Graham, his butler and friend. It is not until a second death occurs that Lenox begins to piece together the puzzling crime.

A Beautiful Blue Death is Charles Finch’s delightful debut novel. The pairing of Lenox and Graham brings to mind the famous pairing of Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter. Like Wimsey and Bunter, Lenox and Graham share more than a purely professional relationship. Despite the friendship and amity they feel for each other, the barriers of class keep them separated. “This matter of asking Graham for help on a case was part of that unusual bond – a result of trust in Graham as a man, first of all, and in his competence too. In the end, each man relied on their deep mutual loyalty, which would be hard for anyone to test.”

What elevates A Beautiful Blue Death from just another historical mystery is the relationships Lenox has with the people around him; with Lady Jane, his brother Edmund and Graham. While the central mystery is fascinating, what captivates readers is the exploration Lenox’s relationship with Lady Jane and the window it provides into the life of a gentleman of leisure. Their habit of taking their daily tea illustrates the depth of their relationship, unusual for a time when the intersection of men and women’s lives was quite minimal. It is the man these relationships illuminate which will draw readers to future volumes about Charles Lenox.

ISBN10: 0312359772
ISBN13: 9780312359775

320 Pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Minotaur
Publication Date: June 26, 2007
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark


Eliza Tally lives with her mother, a midwife and herbalist, in a small village several hours from London. Following the death of her husband, Eliza’s mother sees few options to ensure their survival and gives her comely daughter to the son of a local landowner, after ensure they marry in front of the hearth. When Eliza becomes pregnant with his child, he renounces their union and her desperate mother makes a deal with the devil, selling Eliza into servitude with the apothecary, Grayson Black.

Delivered to the bizarre household, Eliza struggles to cope with her burgeoning pregnancy and the strict demands of Mrs. Black. Believing that she has been sent to London so that Mr. Black may rid her of the unwanted pregnancy, Eliza realizes with dawning horror that this has never been his intention. Her only companion Mary, the slow-witted servant girl, Eliza sinks into a melancholy relieved only by her visits to the French bookseller Mr. Honfleur until the day she makes a startling discovery.

Set in early 18th-century London, Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters is a masterful tale of gothic suspense. Although mostly powerless and victimized, Eliza possesses an indomitable will, refusing to bow to the fate thrust upon her. In the early part of the novel, Eliza is a character who may alienate the reader. Prickly, self-centered and ignorant, her arrival in London sets in motion Black’s plans and the dawn of the horror readers feel on her behalf. By making the readers aware from the start Black’s sadistic plans for Mary, Clark slowly creates an atmosphere full of tension and unease. His plan to frighten/stress Eliza into giving birth to a deformed child is chilling and to our modern eyes nonsensical, yet the beliefs of this time were that experiences of the mother would have immediate effect on the child. “…for a dread of unseen horrors beyond her immediate environs must surely stimulate a heightened state of imagination which shall serve the work to its considerable advantage.” “On no account may she be permitted to grow comfortable.”

Clark clearly illustrates that monsters come in all guises, whether born that way or created through single-minded obsession. Black is so lost within his dreams of scientific fame and heavily addicted to opium, that he deems no cost too high in pursuit of his treatise. Although many at the time would view Black as a monster because of the raspberry birthmark on his face, what truly makes him a monster is his character and lack of human compassion for those he should be protecting. As he states in his journal: “bring the whores to me & I shall make monsters of them all.” In the Black household, the true monsters are the apothecary and his wife.

To modern eyes, the “scientific” discoveries appear nonsensical and the fascination with monsters (human beings plagued with infirmaries and birth-defects) to be cruel and inhumane. Little attention at the time was given to ethical ponderings of the experiments being carried out by men of science throughout England. Clark has brought this quest for scientific discover vividly to life and in the process, leads readers to question whether today we are any different. We may no longer dissect live dogs or believe “the child bears the imprint of the mother’s passions as sealing wax receives the imprint of a stamp,” but are we truly any different than those who visited sideshows to examine hunchbacks or dog-headed children?

In an age of growing intolerance, Clark’s novel will leave readers wondering what methods we use to create monsters today. What we perpetuate in the name of science now has far greater potential to inflict damage on both our species and the world around us. Greater knowledge does not naturally lead to increased compassion. Readers will quickly appreciate that the worst monsters are hidden in plain sight and, despite her appearance, Mary is the least monster-like of anyone in The Nature of Monsters.

ISBN10: 0151012067
ISBN13: 9780151012060

400 Pages
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
Publication Date: May 1, 2007


BOOK REVIEW: Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


The term “political pawn” could have been created to describe the short life of Lady Jane Grey. The eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, Jane was groomed from infancy to marry a prince or king. Her parents had great ambitions for their daughter, their greatest dream being to marry her to Edward VI, son of King Henry VIII. This dream died at his demise at age 15, leaving the way open for a bid to seize the throne. Any male child of Jane’s stood third in line to the throne – if Mary and Elizabeth died without male progeny – under the terms of 1543 Act of Succession.

Her parents conspired with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland to marry his son Guildford to young Jane and place them on the throne, an act designed to prevent Mary, Edward’s half-sister, from returning the country to Catholic rule. Jane’s short rule, as the “nine day queen,” led ultimately to her imprisonment in the Tower of London and death by beheading when Mary claimed her throne.

Alison Weir is a noted writer of popular history of the British monarchy and Innocent Traitor is her first historical novel. In the author’s note she describes the freedom that fiction allowed, providing an opportunity to delve into the emotions and motives of historical figures. Readers may assume that some of the most far-fetched events described here are fiction; however as Weir states: “they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.”

Beginning with Jane’s infancy, Weir combines historical fact with educated guesses to create a compelling tale. Alternating between key players, she creates convincing and unique voices for each. Jane endured a brutal childhood at the hands of a domineering and abusive mother. Weir has portrayed their relationship realistically and shown the consequences this distance had in the events which followed. Innocent Traitor brings to Tudor period vividly to life.

Lady Jane Grey was an unusual woman for her time. As Weir explains: “Precocious, highly gifted, and intelligent, she was educated to an unusually advanced standard for a girl and realized that there was more to a woman’s life than just marrying, having children, and running a household.” Her determination to remain true to her faith, and face her death with dignity, together with having the shortest reign in British history, have made her a figure of fascination for many.

Read the review at Armchair Interviews.

ISBN10: 0345494857
ISBN13: 9780345494856

416 Pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: February 27, 2007
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander


Emily Bromley, a beautiful young woman is under persistent pressure to marry from an overbearing mother. Even though she would prefer never to marry, she accepts the proposal of wealthy Viscount Philip Ashton as a means of escape. Her new husband has a passion for hunting and shortly after their wedding departs for Africa for hunting. When the young bride is informed of her husband’s death due to fever, she feels relief rather than grief for she barely knew the man she married.

During her year of half-mourning, Emily begins to learn more about Philip from his friends as they pay condolence calls. Intrigued by the picture painted, she begins to study Greek literature and antiquities in an effort to learn more about the man she married. During her studies she develops a friendship with Cecile du Lac, a wealthy Parisian, and Colin Hargreaves and Andrew Palmer, Philip’s best friends.

As Emily learns more about her husband’s life, she begins to develop feelings for him. The more she discovers, the more worried she becomes that his death wasn’t an accident. Colin and Andrew are both behaving oddly and Emily uncovers that Philip may have been involved in unscrupulous activities. Uncertain who to trust, Emily decides to investigate on her own.

Tasha Alexander’s debut novel And Only to Deceive: a novel of suspense is a delightful mystery set during the Victorian period. While the story is engaging and the mystery fascinating, what is most compelling is the portrait she paints of the life of a young Victorian woman desiring independence. In the afterword Alexander describes her motivation in developing the character of Emily: “I was determined not to create twenty-first-century characters, drop them into bustles and corsets, and call them historical.”

She has succeeded in this novel, obviously doing extensive research to uncover the ethics and principles guiding Victorian upper class society. And Only to Deceive brings the Victorian period to life, capturing the small details of a widow’s life and the severe restrictions they face during their period of mourning. The small points of etiquette, such as opening the curtains facing the street or wearing a dress made out of a fabric other than crepe, could destroy a widow’s place within respectable society. Within this setting Alexander incorporates subtle commentary on the social politics of the time without hindering the pace of her mystery.

Lady Emily Ashton’s second adventure A Poisoned Season is scheduled for release in April 2007. Hopefully this series will maintain the historical depth exhibited by the first novel.

ISBN10: 006114844X
ISBN13: 9780061148446

Trade Paperback
336 Pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: October 10, 2006
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: Incantation by Alice Hoffman


“I am someone
I never would have imagined.
A secret.
A dream…
body and soul…”

Growing up in the small village of Encaleflora, Spain, Estrella deMadrigal is aware of the Spanish Inquisition but believes it has little to do with her. She and her family attend one of the Catholic Churches in town and her brother is studying to be a priest. However, Estrella is forced to face the brutal reality of the Inquisition as Jews from the ghetto are murdered and she discovers her own family’s secrets – they are Marranos, a community of Jews who public profess to Roman Catholicism while secretly practicing their Judaism and Kabbalah at home.

Shortly after this momentous discovery, her family’s secrets are made public and Estrella confronts a world she’s never imagined, where neighbours turn on each other, where friendship ends in flame, and where betrayal has tragic and bitter consequences. To create a future for her family, Estrella must reach deep within herself and find sources of strength to craft a new reality.

Incantation, Alice Hoffman’s newest novel for young adults, introduces readers to a turbulent period in European history through the eyes of Estrella. Sixteen year-old Estrella enjoys spending time with her best friend Catalina, believing that their destiny is to marry and live next door to each other. “We thought we knew exactly what our lives were made of: still water, not a moving river.”

Fate; however, has different plans for Estrella and Catalina. In 1478, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in a bid to maintain Catholicism in their kingdoms and in 1500 the Inquisition arrived in Encaleflora and snared Estrella and her family in its trap.

In Incantation, Hoffman has crafted a compelling coming of age story. At a time when the biggest decision facing her should be choosing a young man to marry, Estrella must confront a life built upon lies. Yet even within this dark period, Estrella manages to find dignity and hope.

Read the review at Armchair Interviews.

ISBN10: 0316010197
ISBN13: 9780316010191

176 Pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: October 4, 2006
Author Website:

Further Reading:
The Cross by Day, the Mezuzzah by Night – Deborah Siegel
Mystery of the Missing Candlestick – June Weltman


BOOK REVIEW: The Uncrowned Queen by Posie Graeme-Evans


The Uncrowned Queen, the finalé to Posie Graeme-Evans’ Anne trilogy, picks up eighteen months after The Exile. Commencing shortly after Edward Plantagenet, Edward the IV, lost the throne of England to the Lancastrian line (Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou) for several months in 1470-1471, Anne de Bohun lives on a small farm outside the walls of Brugge. In the eighteen months since Anne has seen her lover, Edward the IV, she has returned to the a more natural life, growing saffron and other medicinal herbs while tending to her growing son Edward.

Edward has fled England, driven away by the combined treachery of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s younger brother. Seeking shelter at Binnenhof with his friend Louis de Gruuthuis, the governor of the province of Holland for Charles, Duke of Burgundy, Edward hopes that Charles will lend aid to recover the English throne. Faced with a strong foe in Louis XI, King of France who is plotting with Warwick to reinstate Henry VI on the English throne, Charles faces war with France if he assists his brother-in-law Edward.

Anne, close friends with Charles’s wife, is Edward’s only hope to broker a deal with Charles and, as a last resort, he sends her the desperate message ‘The king needs you.’ Charles has the means to help Edward regain his throne, but the question is, will he? Will Edward and Anne be reunited for good? The Uncrowned Queen is a memorable and dazzling end to this historical saga.

Set amidst a turbulent period in European history, Graeme-Evans has created a compelling love story which manages to hold up amidst the political drama which drives the plot. Although the character of Anne is fictitious, Edward IV is known to have had many mistresses, and fathered children with several of them, so the relationship, which has developed through this trilogy, has a ring of truth.

What is most fascinating in Graeme-Evans’ writing is the portrait of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, another of Edward’s brothers. Long viewed as the scheming hunchback protrayed by Shakespeare in Richard III, Graeme-Evans portrays him as Edward’s right hand and most trusted supporter. This portrait is so at odds with the conventional understanding of Richard, that it has prompted this reviewer to seek out contemporary biographies of both Richard and Edward IV to better understand this turbulent period in England’s history.

The Uncrowned Queen (or The Beloved as it is titled outside of North America), while the concluding chapter in a trilogy, contains enough adventure, passion and drama to engage readers, even if they have not read the preceding two instalments of Anne’s journey.

This review is published at Front Street Reviews.

ISBN10: 0743443748
ISBN13: 9780743443746

Publisher: Atria Books
Publication Date: June 6, 2006
Binding: Trade Paperback
Author Website:

Related Books:
· The Innocent
· The Exiled
· Edward IV by Michael Hicks
· Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower by David Baldwin
· The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir
· Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
· Richard III by Michael Hicks


BOOK REVIEW: The Priest’s Madonna by Amy Hassinger


In 1896 Bérenger Saunière, the priest of Rennes-le-Château, suddenly became very wealthy. Has he uncovered clues leading to the hidden treasure of the Knights Templar or information that he is using to blackmail the Catholic Church?

The Priest’s Madonna by Amy Hassinger is based on historical facts: there really was a priest named Bérenger Saunière who came into a great deal of money and whose housekeeper Marie was rumoured to also be his lover. The villagers of Rennes-le-Château dubbed her “the Priest’s Madonna” and Marie carried Bérenger’s secrets to her grave, even though many suspected she knew the truth behind his wealth. Hassinger has taken historical fact, woven in possibility and created a riveting novel that gives Marie a voice to tell her story of faith and doubt, desire and chasteness.

Comparisons will inevitably be made to The Da Vinci Code; however The Priest’s Madonna is more than a clone. While the mystery of what Bérenger may have found is tantalizing, Hassinger’s novel is about relationships and faith, about love, obsession and the consequences of our choices.

Marie and her family moved to Rennes-le-Château in the Languedoc region of France in 1884. Initially receiving a chilly welcome from the villagers, they are integrated into the village life more fully once the new priest begins to board with them. Marie is drawn to the handsome young priest and eventually becomes his housekeeper, eschewing opportunities for marriage and a family of her own.

Marie’s story is told in counterpoint to that of Miryam (Mary Magdalen), the woman many suspect was the lover of Yeshua (Jesus). In the question and answer section of her website, Hassinger addresses why she chose to interweave the Marie/Bérenger story with that of Mary Magdalen/Jesus.

“The parallels with the Marie narrative are clear: forbidden love between a woman and a holy man, the themes of spiritual sickness and health, of faith and doubt, the search for what is meaningful and holy in the physical world.”

Both Marie and Miryam are educated beyond the norm for the villages where they are raised. These strong women are plagued by doubts, demons and seek truth no matter what the cost. Marie chooses to continue to learn, to investigate the Cathars who had settled her area of France and in so doing, learns that the Church is fallible. She chooses to imitate Bérenger, to “imitate his daring, to honor my own thirst for truth over doctrine.” Learning helped both women on their journey to become the consorts of spiritual leaders.

By juxtaposing Marie and Miryam’s stories, Hassinger has crafted a novel that illustrates the timelessness of her themes. Interweaving the history of France at the turn of the twentieth century, scenes of ancient Judea, and the romantic and religious journey of a spirited and intense heroine, The Priest’s Madonna transcends its historical setting, becoming a novel for the seeker within all of us.

The Priest’s Madonna is Amy Hassinger’s second novel, the follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut novel Nina: Adolescence. Hassinger also wrote Finding Katahdin: An Exploration of Maine’s Past published in 2001. A graduate of Barnard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received her MFA in fiction writing, she and her family make their home in Urbana, Illinois.

See the review posted at The Book Depository – The Priest’s Madonna.

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