The Postmistress ~ Sarah Blake

The Postmistress takes place between 1940 and 1941 at the beginning of the Second World War, in both Europe and in the small town of Franklin Massachusetts on Cape Cod. This is a solid war story told from the perspective of three very different women whose lives are directly affected by the War. First there is Iris James, a 40-year old postmaster who is new to Franklin. Iris prides herself on maintaining the order of the town and whose job it is to sort and process all of the incoming and outgoing mail, which is a huge responsibility. Iris is a devoted, by-the-book postmaster until she does the unthinkable—she pockets a letter destined for town. Next there is the young Mrs. Emma Fitch, the new wife of the town doctor. Emma is young, quite and naïve who has lived a tough life. She was orphaned as a young girl when her family died in the epidemic of 1918 and she was sent to live with her aunt. Emma is desperate to be loved and to have someone watching over her as a parent would and she finds this in Doctor Fitch. Finally there is Frankie Bard, a fiercely independent and educated “Radio-gal” from New York who chose to go overseas to bring the reality of war back home. Frankie ends up in London giving firsthand accounts from the front lines of war, literally with bombs bursting overhead, about the life in London during the Blitz. Frankie is then determined to find the big story of the war and travels to the Continent and into occupied France where she gives a voice to the people there who are trying to escape the horrors of war. Frankie wants to bring the story home to Americans—she tries to get them to pay attention and to realize that the War is not as far away from them as they think.


There has been a lot of hype about this novel and it has been sitting on my TBR list for what seems like forever. I was shopping at my local Walmart and I found a copy of the book with a big, red 40% off sticker on it and I could not resist picking it up. I have to say, there was no buyers remorse when it came to this novel.

I very much enjoyed how the stories of each of the three women danced around and intertwined with each other throughout the novel however each of the individual stories could have stood on their own. The characters felt real—you could feel their pain, their hope, their sorrow—they could have been real women who lived these lives during the tumultuous time of war. I found that while Emma’s and Iris’ stories were great, they paled in comparison to that of Frankie Bard. I found Frankie’s story to be exciting—it tugged on the heart-strings and played on the emotions, but yet it was informative about the lives of those who live it. I think that this could have been achieved with both Iris’ and Emma’s stories by exploring their back stories more in-depth than just the glimpses the reader was given. Again, each of the characters were relatable and realistic, especially Frankie. My only major criticism of the novel was that I was very disappointed in the ending; the story just stopped. We are left hanging, wondering what happens to the characters with no insight into the future.

I was fascinated by the power of communication in this novel. The power of a single letter or a 3 minute radio broadcast is unimaginable in our world today. The story takes place in a much simpler time, most unlike the world we live in today; a world of instant gratification. News is available at our fingertips, at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I cannot imagine living in a world where news could take up to 2 weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic containing news of your loved ones well being.

The rich and descriptive language of the novel brings the story to life; creating vivid images of what the characters themselves were seeing and experiencing. This is a timeless story of people living in a catastrophic world in the middle of a worldwide War and who are living with the uncertainty of the future.


To Be Queen ~ Christy English

This story could be summed up with one phrase: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get exactly what you want. Alienor of Aquitaine was just young girl when her father, William X of Aquitaine, started grooming her to become his heir. Alienor learns at an early age to inspire love and loyalty in her people and how to be powerful in the midst of the ruthless politics of court. Alienor enjoyed life in Aquitaine in the Court of Love with her father and younger sister Petra and her only request of her father was to help her become the Queen of France. With her father’s mysterious and untimely death, Alienor becomes Duchess of Aquitaine at the tender age of 15 and she is forced to finish her own betrothal agreement with the King of France—an agreement which is prolonged by Alienor’s refusal to give up her duchy to her husband but to remain Duchess of Aquitaine with the title passing on to her son.

Louis VII was raised in the Church, being the second son he never aspired to become King, however he is forced to do so upon the death of his older brother. The Church means everything to Louis and the Church’s power only grows stronger with Louis VII on the throne. Being young, impressionable and dedicated to God, he is easily manipulated by the Church. Although he is awed by Alienor, now named Eleanor by Louis, his true love and devotion is to the Church and God. Eleanor tries to guide her weak and naive husband but she faces a constant opposition at every turn by the Church. Trapped in a loveless marriage that has only produced daughters for France and in a life in which she does not believe, Eleanor looks to dissolve her marriage to the King of France and return home to Aquitaine.


This story is everything that a great historical fiction should be—it’s educational; it’s exciting; there’s romance, deception and betrayal; and finally it’s a fantastic read. I have loved Alienor of Aquitaine ever since I learned about her in a French history class in University. She was a strong, independent, determined and unconventional woman who was born to rule in a time of male dominance. I read Christy English’s “The Queen’s Pawn” last year and I have to say that English’s sophomore novel is just as good as her debut novel. It is evident that English has a personal love and interest in her subject, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and this shines through in her writing. The story is written in such a way that it is evident that English did her research. She paints her characters in such a life-like way that it is possible for the reader to be able to feel the love between Alienor and her father. Her father William realizes that his daughter is special and instead of remarrying to produce an heir, he is comfortable leaving his lands to his daughter—there is obviously a loving and trusting bond between the two. Her style of writing and the amount of rich details evokes the senses – it is almost as if the reader is transported into the novel and experiencing the same sounds, smells and sights as the characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this fast paced, page-turner by Christy English and I cannot wait to read what she has in store for the future.  


Victoria Victorious ~ Jean Plaidy

Victoria Victorious is the story of one of the greatest Queen’s in Britain’s history. The story is told through Victoria’s eyes—a memoir of sorts. The story begins in Victoria’s childhood where she lives in Kensington Palace under the consistent watchful eye of her mother, the Duchess of Kent. When Victoria is born, she is fourth in line to the throne and her mother sees Victoria as her ticket to becoming Regent to the Queen of England as Victoria’s father dies shortly after her birth and her uncles are rather old. The Duchess of Kent keeps her daughter locked away in Kensington Palace, forbidding her to attend royal events, virtually keeping Victoria prisoner. Things get even worse when Sir John Conroy takes over the house and her mother’s heart. Victoria knows that he is not to be trusted and begins to countdown until her 18th birthday. Soon after her 18th birthday Victoria awakens to the news that she is now Queen of England. She becomes very fond of her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne—one of many men who would have a great influence on Victoria’s life and reign. Victoria then falls in love with her German cousin Albert, Prince of Sacs-Coburg, through the coercion of her Uncle Leopold. The English people dislike Albert because he was German and not English, therefore he was not a proper man, but Victoria could not care less what the people thought of her dear Albert as she was head over heels in love with him. Throughout their married life Victoria and Albert produce a grand total of nine children. After the tragic death of Albert, Victoria continued to reign for almost another 40 years. 


I was excited to read this novel as I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Jean Plaidy’s novels that I have read thus far and I have always been interested in learning more about Queen Victoria’s life; however I regretfully have to say that I was extremely disappointed in this novel. The first half of the novel was good—I enjoyed reading about Victoria’s childhood and her marriage to Albert and her trials and tribulations of married life and motherhood. It was after Albert’s death where the novel fell apart for me. The amount of political details was tedious to get through and honestly, it was very dry and boring. Victoria was portrayed as weak and extremely dependent on the men in her life ranging from her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, to her husband Albert to her subsequent Prime Ministers. My final criticism was the fact that it was incongruous—Plaidy jumped from event to event without any notion that any time had passed. Some events that you know would take time, for example a 9-month pregnancy, started and ended in the same paragraph whereas other events that many have only lasted a few hours, such as a ball, took 2-3 paragraphs from start to finish. You could also start one paragraph in one year and by the next you were 5 years in the future without even realizing that any time had passed at all.

Overall I found this novel to be extremely tedious and I could not wait to finish it—I even considered giving up on it half way through but I convinced myself that it would get better . . . which it didn’t. Definitely was not my favourite Jean Plaidy novel and I would only recommend this to someone who enjoys reading about British politics as that was the main focus of the majority of the novel.


The Daughter of Siena ~ Marina Fiorato

The newest novel by Marina Fiorato is set in 18th century Siena and tells the story of Pia, a young lady from the Civetta contrada (the Owlet district) who is forced into marriage with Vicenzo from the Aquila contrada (the Eagle district). When Vicenzo is killed in the Palio, her betrothal changes to her deceased fincancés younger brother Nello. Trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage, Pia falls in love with Riccardo, the rider who attempt to save Vincenzo’s life in the Palio and who makes Nello extremely jealous when he spoke to Pia. Riccardo is hired by Nello’s father to teach Pia how to ride, but with ulterior motives. It is his hope that Riccardo will not have time to train his new horse for the upcoming Palio and to make Nello even more jealous, to serve as motivation to win the Palio, not only for his contrada but also to prove that he deserves a wife as beautiful as Pia. Throughout the story of the forbidden lovers, there is another plot going on in the city of Siena to overthrow the governess Violante de Medici.

This is the second novel that I have read by Fiorato and I have to say my expectations for this novel were extremely high and unfortunately the novel did not live up to my expectations. Honestly, it took me a while to get into this book; I even reached a point where I was questioning whether to continue reading. I decided to continue with the book and it was around the 110 page mark when I finally got into the story and it started to pick up. While Fiorato did a great job in recreating 18th century Siena and the excitement and danger of the Palio including the rivalries between the contradas, I found that there were some critical flaws. First, the characters were either good or bad  . . . and nothing really in the middle. The good were very good and the bad were very bad. Secondly, the two main protagonists Pia and Riccardo were described as being extremely beautiful (of course!) and intelligent (even though Riccardo was illiterate) whereas the antagonist Nello is described as ugly (from the description I presumed that he was an Albino, who attempts to disguise this by dying his hair black) and not very intelligent. Finally, I would have appreciated more of a focus on the secret plot in Siena and less on the budding romance between Pia and Riccardo. The one character who really saved this novel for me was young Zebra the orphan messenger boy.

The Queen's Dollmaker ~ Christine Trent

Looking for an 18th century historical drama? 

Pick up The Queen’s Dollmaker by Christine Trent. The novel is set both in France and England and tells the story of one woman’s survival and her struggle for independence, love and life. The heroine, Claudette Laurent, loses everything when a tragic fire sweeps through Paris killing her family and destroying her house and the family business. Penniless and alone Claudette decides to take her chances in England. On the ship from France to England, she befriends Béatrice and her young daughter Marguerite. The three of them become inseparable and they form their own little family and begin their journey together. They stick together through good times and bad, including tedious servant work, Claudette rekindles her talent and dreams of continuing her father’s business of doll making.  At the beginning, this is just for survival . . . the girls need to make enough money to escape their lives as domestic servants but eventually these little dolls become coveted items and the demand begins to increase drastically. Claudette and Béatrice manage to break free from their misery and they begin a very successful and thriving business.

You would think that based on the title of the novel that the nobility would play a greater part in the novel, which is exactly what I thought when I picked it up, however this really isn’t the case. Claudette is commissioned by Marie-Antoinette to create a doll that looks like the Princesse and Claudette eventually becomes friends with Marie-Antoinette as well as the Princesse and Marie Grosholtz (the future Madame Tussard). Claudette’s friendship with the Queen proves to be dangerous as the revolution approaches and Claudette finds herself in a dangerous situation.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The novel started out a little slow and a little rocky but it changed dramatically once Claudette started her own business. The characters are described in great detail as well as the relationships between them. I love how the author portrayed a strong female character (Claudette) who was able to create and sustain a successful business, without the assistance of a man. I also appreciated how Claudette’s husband allows her to keep her shop and to continue working once they are married, something that was pretty much unheard of in those times. My one criticism of the story was the lack of passion between Claudette and William. I would have liked a little more passion between them especially after the dramatic events that occurred late in the novel.  I also loved the amount of detail about the doll making trade. I also found the sympathetic portrayal of Marie-Antoinette refreshing after years of just the opposite. This novel stays true to its voice as well as to historical details. I cannot wait to read the sequel "A Royal Likeness", it’s currently sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, as well as future works by Christine Trent.

The Seamstress ~ Frances de Pontes Peebles

One of the things that I love the most about reading historical fiction is visiting places and times that I may never have to opportunity to otherwise experience. The Seamstress is one of those novels that have the ability to transport you to another time and place. The story takes place in north-eastern Brazil in the late 1920s and the early 1930s—a time that was corrupt and harsh. There was no authoritative centralized government—the power resided with the wealthy landowners, the Colonels, who ruled their territory as they saw fit. The story takes place during a period of political revolution where the government began to take the power away from the Colonels; this did not just change the political climate but it also threw the country into total chaos.

The two sisters could not be more different. Emília has high aspirations for her life; she dreams of romance, the latest fashions and leaving her simple country life to become a Dona in the city of Recife. Luzia is the complete opposite of her sister; she knows that the fantasy life that her sister dreams of is not for her. Due to a childhood accident, Luzia’s left arm is permanently disabled. She rebels against society and sees no future for herself until the Hawk and his band of cangaciersos take her from her home.

The Seamstress is Frances de Pontes Peebles debut novel and the winner of Elle Magazine’s Fiction Grand Prix 2008. I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed and want to read more from her! This is the first historical novel that I have read featured in South America, and it didn’t hurt that it took place in my favourite South American country (and one which I am dying to visit!). The amount of research is phenomenal—clearly the author spent a lot of time digging in Brazil’s history. Frances de Pontes Peebles created a page turning story with memorable and life-like characters. The amount of detail is extraordinary, from the scrublands to the houses, to the culture and lifestyle, to the characters themselves.

The novel itself flip-flops between the lives of the two sisters. The book has extremely long chapters, each one focusing on one of the sisters’ lives. Thankfully each chapter was broken down into sub-chapters providing the reader with a place to pause in the story (and if you’re like me, you have to stop at the end of a chapter) without having to read a full 100 pages to get to the end of the chapter. One of the few problems that I had with this novel was the prologue—I found that it gave away too much of the story before you really got into it, I felt like I knew the basic plot before the story began. The book is quite long however, my edition was 641 pages long, so by the time you get to the end of the story you have forgotten the prologue. Another small issue that I had with the novel was the language. While I like the fact that the author chose to incorporate the Portuguese language in names, it wasn’t totally consistent, for example the Hawk and Little Ear . . . I don’t think these are Portuguese names. Finally, I found some of the political talk in the novel tedious to get through and to be honest I skimmed some paragraphs when it came to the political parts.

Overall I really enjoyed this novel and I am excited to see what Frances de Pontes Peebles comes up with next. Hopefully she stays in South America as I find that this is an area that is looked over when it comes to historical fiction and I am certain that there are many great stories hidden within its borders.


The Midwife of Venice ~ Roberta Rich

In her debut novel, Roberta Rich tells the story of Hannah Levi, a Jewish midwife living in 16th century Venice. Hannah’s reputation as a skilled midwife spread to the Venetian nobility which prompts a visit under the cover of darkness to her home in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Conte di Padovani’s wife Lucia had been in labour for days with no results and is near death herself; only Hannah has the skills and tools to save their lives. As Lucia’s life and that of her unborn child hangs in the balance, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. It is forbidden by a papal edict for Jews to treat Christians and the punishments are severe. The Conte is desperate and Hannah strikes a deal with him; she will embark on this dangerous mission and risk everything but for a fee of 200 ducats—a sum great enough to pay her husband’s ransom. 

Hannah’s husband Isaac was captured in Malta and has been enslaved for months by the Knights of St. John. He is sold to the highest bidder, a nun who attempts to convert him to Christianity. When he refuses he is sold to Joseph, a tyrant of a slave owner. Isaac soon plots his escape from the island of Malta with devastating results.

Throughout the story Rich skips back and forth between Hannah’s story in Venice and Isaac’s in Malta – telling the story of the husband and wife both struggling for survival and their desire to be reunited with each other.

I enjoyed reading The Midwife of Venice. I found it to be rich in historical detail concerning the plight of the Jews; the social and religious customs and the overall detail given about 16th century Venice. The female characters in the story are strong and determined and the y face challenges head on however they are not necessarily believable. Even though Hannah faces a lot of challenges and danger, things somehow work out perfectly for her . . . almost too perfectly, I was actually hoping that something bad or unexpected would happen to her. I also found that Isaac really bothered me—he was described as being perfect and beautiful ‘The Midwife of Venice’ . . . ). This might have been because the book was split into two narratives—if Rich had of focused on one storyline in this book and the other in another book; I think that I would have enjoyed the story more. Being split into the two narratives did not allow for as much detail of each story as I would have liked. 

Another issue I had with this book was that there was really no sense of time—I had no idea if only a few days or months had passed.  Finally, I have to say that I was disappointed with the ending—it just sort of ended, like the author had just decided to stop writing. If this was done intentionally as there is a sequel in the works, then congratulations, you are keeping us in suspense.