The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna
by C.W. Gortner
Blurb: “Narrated by the mother of Russia’s last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia’s most compelling women, who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in its final years…From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.
C. W. Gortner has hit another one out of the park with his newest historical novel The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. The book ranges over half a century from the eve of the protagonist’s sister’s wedding to the heir to the British throne (1863) to her dramatic escape from civil war-torn Russia (1919) aboard a British battleship. Gortner takes us on a heart-rending journey through the life of the woman born Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar (“Minnie”) of Denmark. She took the name Maria Feodorovna when she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, married the heir to the Russian throne Alexander II and became the mother of the last Tsar of Russia Nicholas II. Minnie is an appealing character and much less known than her daughter-in-law Empress Alexandra. My only acquaintance with her was as the white-haired aristocratic grandmother in the animated Disney film Anastasia. (more…)
by Gore Vidal
Vidal is a master of his craft. This novel starts from the point of view of Charles Schuyler, a young law clerk working in the law office of an aged Aaron Burr. His employer inexplicably invites him on a mysterious carriage ride which ends in Burr’s wedding to a notorious rich widow. Schuyler, who prefers journalism to the law, writes an article about the wedding for a local newspaper–which gets rejected. But the editor, who is deep into New York and national politics, has an offer the penniless young man can’t refuse: a lucrative contract to write an anonymous pamphlet accusing Martin Van Buren (current vice-president and future presidential candidate) of being Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son which could hand the presidency to the likely contender Henry Clay. Schuyler just has to come up with some “proof” which, in those times before DNA testing, was pretty thin. This sets up the story in which young Schuyler struggles with his conscience over hurting a man he admires and helping a man, whose politics he abhors, win an election. (more…)
Book Review and Giveaway:
“Hand of Fire” by Judith Starkston
I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.
About the book:
The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.
I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story. (more…)
Guest Post: Early-Modern Crime (and Punishment) in “The Raven’s Seal”
I’m back from New Zealand and–totally by coincidence–I’m hosting a New Zealand author. As readers of this blog know, I’m a Dickens fan. I can’t get enough of his quirky characters, dark settings, twisty plots and–yes!–even his social preaching. One of my favorites, Little Dorritt (reviewed here) features a debtor’s prison which is just as much a character as its human inhabitants. That’s why I was so pleased to score a copy of The Raven’s Seal a historical mystery written in the style of Dickens. The author Andrei Baltakmens is a Dickens scholar and plants an eighteenth-century prison in the heart of his novel. The gaol (jail for us in the US) broods over the prose and lurks in the background infusing the story with its dark presence. From the first paragraph:
“The Old Bellstrom Gaol crouched above the fine city of Airenchester like a black spider on a heap of spoils. It presided over The Steps, a ramshackle pile of cramped yards and tenements teeming about rambling stairs, and glared across the River Pentlow towards Battens Hill, where the sombre courts and city halls stood. From Cracksheart Hill, the Bellstrom loomed on every prospect and was glimpsed at the end of every lane.”
Many thanks to Andrei for providing a guest post on eighteenth-century crime and punishment and to his publisher Top Five Books for providing a giveaway copy (details at the end of the post.) (more…)
Guest Post: Enid Shomer on “The Twelve Rooms of the Nile”
I just finished The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, a novel about the imagined meeting of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert when they both traveled the fabled river–before they became famous. It’s a lovely literary effort with wonderful insights into two intriguing characters. I’m pleased to host a guest post by the author Enid Shomer where she tells us how she came to know both these remarkable people and write about them. Ms. Shomer’s short fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review among other publications. This is her first novel. Thanks to her publisher Simon and Schuster for providing two copies of this book for a giveaway (details at the end of the post.) If you want to learn more about Ms. Shomer and her writing, please visit her website. Enjoy! (more…)
“The Seven Wonders” by Steven Saylor
Gordianus the Finder is back in this prequel to Steven Saylor’s popular series of mysteries set in the Roman Republic of Cicero and Caesar. Gordianus is eighteen and embarks on the First Century BCE equivalent of a “Grand Tour” with his old tutor and famous poet Antipater of Sidon. As the Italian peninsula simmers with rebellion, the pair head east to visit the Seven Wonders of the World encountering murder, mysteries and political intrigues. Over the course of their year-plus journey, Gordianus evolves into “the Finder” series readers have come to know and love.
For the record, I am not a Gordianus fan. I very much enjoyed Saylor’s multi-generational epics Roma and Empire, which I reviewed, but didn’t take to the couple of Finder novels I sampled. Not because they were bad books, but because I’m not that into historical mysteries. Every reader has her quirks. This book has a distinctly different structure from the others. Saylor uses the journey to visit the Seven Wonders as a framework for several short stories (many of which were previously published in mystery and fantasy magazines.) Each Wonder gets a story with a few interludes, such as attending the Olympic Games and visiting the ruins of Corinth, resulting in ten chapters dealing with murder, witchcraft, ghosts and gods. As their journey continues, a larger mystery entangles Gordianus and Antipater with spies and other enemies of Rome. (more…)