Brown’s first novel is a heart-poundingly vivid, intellectually provocative account of the legal case against a fictional woman condemned to death for secretly burying her dead, illegitimate newborn in Cromwell’s England.
In 1649, Cromwell has taken power after the beheading of Charles I. Politics is in turmoil, suspicion and paranoia the mood of the day. But the law still must be upheld as aging and ailing criminal investigator Thomas Bartwain reluctantly builds his case against Rachel Lockyer, an unmarried glovemaker’s apprentice, for breaking the 1624 “Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children.” No one questions that Rachel buried her infant daughter; the case hinges on whether the child was born dead. Humorously Rumpole-like, with a wife who keeps him morally on pitch, Bartwain is increasingly uneasy, especially when he finds a flaw in the law. Meanwhile Rachel remains largely silent out of her confused sense of guilt and because she does not want to expose William Walwyn, who has been her adulterous lover for three passionate years—the author provides great, unsentimental sex scenes that feel true to the era. With his crony Richard Lilburne, Walwyn is a well-known leader of the Levelers, a human rights advocacy group that originally supported Cromwell but has turned against him and is now under attack. William is also the father of 14 legitimate children, and his wife Anne watches and waits for her husband to return his heart to his marriage, not passive but patient. Rachel’s true friend and supporter is feisty and outspoken Elizabeth Lilburne, who has recently lost two small sons to smallpox and remains loyal to husband John despite her impatience with his political posturing. Events in the plot are based on historical incidents, and one of the book’s many joys is the way fictional (Rachel, the Bartwains) and historical figures (the Walwyns, the Lilburnes) weave seamlessly together; everyone’s motives and reactions are richly complex.
A romping good read that is character-driven yet intellectually provocative on issues of law, religion and morality—historical fiction at its best.
A mother and daughter discover empathy, courage and autonomy in this powerful first novel by Czepiel.
Set in the Hudson Valley in 1898, this brilliantly written story explores the lives and relationships of Ida Fletcher and her 16-year-old daughter, Alice, who exist within the confines of a restrictive society. Struggling to repay husband Frank’s long-standing debt to his older brothers, Ida and her family reside in a tenant house on the family-owned violet farm. It’s a bleak existence, and the family barely makes ends meet. Ida works as a wet nurse (in fact, she bore her youngest child, Jasper, in order to lactate), and Alice has been taken out of school to assist with the family income. Frank, a hotheaded, taciturn man, displays little affection for his family and expects them to accept his authority without question. After 23 years of marriage, Ida reflects upon their years together and ponders whether this has always been the case. Frank brings more babies into the household for Ida’s care, and he secures employment for Alice, which puts her in a precarious position and jeopardizes her dreams of a future with Joe Jacobs, the local preacher’s son. Frank’s actions result in life-shattering revelations for both Ida and Alice: Ida, her love for her children first and foremost, chooses to make a move that is almost unprecedented for a woman of her time and circumstances. And Alice, a strong young woman in her own right, must overcome her own past and learn to forgive her mother. A vivid portrait of life at the turn of the last century, the story is rich with historical detail and strongly defined characters. Czepiel portrays the often unpleasant aspects of Ida’s and Alice’s lives with reverential care and affords readers a finely tuned study in human endurance.
In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh.
The blond beauty is Sigrid, a stenographer living alone with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, serves on the eastern front. Sigrid’s Berlin is a grim city full of suspicious, fearful citizens barely coping with shortages and almost nightly air raids, people not above turning each other over to the Gestapo for unpatriotic behavior. But Sigrid is mostly consumed in pining not for Kaspar but for Egon, the Jewish black markeeter with whom she carried on a passionate affair before he went into hiding. At first, Sigrid resists when Ericha, a rebellious teenager living in her building, involves her in an underground network hiding Jews, but iconoclast Sigrid soon finds that her experience as Egon’s occasional “bagman” serves her well as she delivers supplies and humans to a safe house. At the same time, she befriends new neighbors, two sisters and their wounded-officer brother, Wolfram, whose impeccable German credentials are not what they seem. Sigrid finds herself wondering if a particular Jewish woman with two daughters in hiding might be Egon’s wife. But when Egon reappears in her life, she doesn’t bring up her suspicions. Instead she hides him in her neighbors’ apartment, an awkward situation given that she has recently begun what she considers a purely sexual affair with Wolfram. The wounded and embittered Kaspar’s return only complicates the situation. With her underground activities as intricate as her love life, Sigrid can trust no one, yet must trust a dangerously wider circle of acquaintances until the hold-your-breath suspense ending.
The latest of Gregory’s Cousins’ War series debunks—mostly—the disparaging myths surrounding Richard III and his marriage to Anne Neville.
Anne and her sister Isabel are both used without hesitation as political bargaining chips by their father, Richard, Earl of Warwick. True to his sobriquet, "Kingmaker," Warwick engineered the downfall of the Lancastrian King Henry VI after Henry succumbed to mental illness and supplanted him with Edward IV, scion of the Yorkist-Plantagenet claims to the English succession. Increasingly disenchanted by the degree to which Edward is allowing his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to dole out favors to her large family, Warwick marries Isabel off to George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s brother, on the theory that George, next in line for the throne, can dislodge his older brother. When George fails at this, Warwick gives Anne, barely 14, in marriage to Henry’s son, Edward and, together with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou (Henry’s exiled consort), attempts a coup that fails miserably, bringing us to the time period chronicled in Shakespeare’s Tudor/Lancaster-biased take on events. With her father and new husband slain in battle and mother and mother-in-law either in prison or otherwise defanged, Anne is left penniless. Her brother-in-law, George, and her own sister have taken her inheritance and are keeping her a virtual servant. King Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, rescues Anne, marries her and uses some unorthodox means to regain her inheritance (while ensuring that it all belongs to him). The marriage, unlike the sinister seduction depicted by Shakespeare, is presented as a genuine love match (aside from some doubt about that tricky prenup). The chief threat to the realm is not Richard but Queen Elizabeth: A reputed witch with a grudge against Warwick’s daughters (Warwick killed her father and brother), she will not be happy until Isabel, Anne and their progeny (and if necessary her brothers-in-law) are dead.
Although their fates are known, Gregory creates suspense by raising intriguing questions about whether her characters will transcend their historical reputations.
Second in Mantel’s trilogy charting the Machiavellian trajectory of Thomas Cromwell.
The Booker award-winning first volume, Wolf Hall (2009), ended before the titular residence, that of Jane Seymour’s family, figured significantly in the life of King Henry VIII. Seeing through Cromwell’s eyes, a point of view she has thoroughly assimilated, Mantel approaches the major events slantwise, as Cromwell, charged with the practical details of managing Henry’s political and religious agendas, might have. We rejoin the characters as the king’s thousand-day marriage to Anne Boleyn is well along. Princess Elizabeth is a toddler, the exiled Queen Katherine is dying, and Henry’s disinherited daughter Princess Mary is under house arrest. As Master Secretary, Cromwell, while managing his own growing fortune, is always on call to put out fires at the court of the mercurial Henry (who, even for a king, is the ultimate Bad Boss). The English people, not to mention much of Europe, have never accepted Henry’s second marriage as valid, and Anne’s upstart relatives are annoying some of Britain’s more entrenched nobility with their arrogance and preening. Anne has failed to produce a son, and despite Cromwell’s efforts to warn her (the two were once allies of a sort), she refuses to alter her flamboyant behavior, even as Henry is increasingly beguiled by Jane Seymour’s contrasting (some would say calculated) modesty. Cromwell, a key player in the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, must now find a pretext for the dismantling of a second. Once he begins interrogating, with threats of torture, Anne’s male retainers to gather evidence of her adulteries, Mantel has a difficult challenge in keeping up our sympathy for Cromwell. She succeeds, mostly by portraying Cromwell as acutely aware that one misstep could land “him, Cromwell” on the scaffold as well. That misstep will happen, but not in this book.
The inventiveness of Mantel’s language is the chief draw here; the plot, as such, will engage only the most determined of Tudor enthusiasts.
Award-winning poet Nicholas (Iron Rose, 2010, etc.) treks into the wilds of medieval England in his first novel, a saga vibrant with artful description.
Maeve, known as Molly in England, is an Irish warrior queen, musician and healer. Exiled, she leads a caravan populated by Jack, once a crusader, now her companion; Nemain, her granddaughter; and Hob, an orphan put in her care by an aging priest. In baleful winter weather, Molly’s troop travels toward Durham, taking refuge first at St. Germaine de la Roche, a mountain monastery. An ominous atmosphere descends when one of the guardian monks, Brother Athanasius, is discovered dismembered nearby. Nicholas adeptly creates the medieval world, intriguingly populated by guilders, knights and wayfarers from faraway Lietuva. The group next stops at a vibrant country inn, a near-fortress against bandits, run by Osbert atte Well. Nicholas’ language, its relevance to ancient times in syntax and vocabulary, and his extensive research into medieval England, bring this book to life in a brilliant fashion. Nicholas’ descriptions of life at the inn and later at the redoubt of the Norman, Sir Jehan, the Sieur De Blanchefontaine, are superbly realistic. With religious pilgrims tagging along, Molly’s troop is attacked by bandits after they leave Osbert’s inn and are forced to return to its safer confines. But the inn has been destroyed, every creature massacred. Both Molly and Nemain know something wicked haunts the North Country, but it isn’t until they seek shelter from a blizzard in Castle Blanchefontaine that the two seers understand a shape-shifter, a beserker, runs amok. Nicholas’ portrayal of Blanchefontaine and its inhabitants, from castellan to page, rings with authenticity. It slowly unfolds that the shape-shifter lurks among the castle refugees, and an epic battle unfolds. Nicholas’ final chapters wind down the story and set young Hob on the path to become the warrior consort of Nemain, destined to return triumphantly to Eire.
A hauntingly affecting historical novel with a touch of magic.
A fictionalized biography of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Its publication will coincide with her appointment as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict.
Eight-year-old Hildegard, a knight’s daughter, accompanies teenage Jutta, a countess’ daughter, as both are imprisoned in an anchorage, a tiny enclosure adjoining a Benedictine monastery chapel in the German hamlet of Disibodenberg. The girls are consecrated as “oblates,” an extreme form of cloistered nun. Their parents have ulterior motives for consigning each child to this sacred interment: Hildegard’s visions embarrass her family, and Jutta, a victim of incest, is unmarriageable. For the next 30 years, Hildegard, with the help of a monk named Volmar, manages to gain an education in music, languages and medicinal arts while Jutta starves herself and mortifies her flesh until she dies. Since the anchorage must now be unbricked for Jutta’s funeral, Hildegarde convinces the Abbot of Disibodenburg to allow her and two other oblates to remain free. Soon, Richardis is brought by her noble mother to serve Hildegard. Richardis is mute, but Hildegard correctly divines that her embrace of religious life is voluntary. When she speaks, it is to defend Hildegard’s visions and writings, which Richardis has helped to illustrate on parchment. This miracle affords Hildegard some credibility at Disibodenburg. Then, word comes that Pope Eugenius wants to scrutinize her first manuscript, Scivias. With the help of Volmar and her beloved brother, Rorich, who serves the Archbishop of Mainz, she is cleared of heresy and is even dubbed “God’s Sybil” by the Pope. Now, Hildegard is free to fulfill her destiny, which she first fully realized at the age of 42, as a writer, healer, composer and abbess. But further hurdles await. Sharratt brings the elusive Hildegard to vivid life, underscoring her ability to evade or transcend Church censure while espousing a protofeminist agenda.
The ideal companion to the elevation of Hildegard by the pontiff who rebuked American nuns for their outspokenness, an irony the saint herself might have relished.