Agreeable historical fiction that both informs and entertains.

THE EMPRESS OF THE LAST DAYS

Last in an ambitious trilogy about a queen and a former slave fast-forwards to the present: here, a newly discovered cache of documents suggests that a black Barbadian woman may be the true queen of England.

Deftly mixing scholarship and history, Stevenson (The Winter Queen, 2002; The Shadow King, 2003) creates a tale rich in ironies and send-ups of academic intransigence as she continues the story of Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, sister of Charles I of England. In exile in Holland, in 1639, Elizabeth married Pelagius, a freed but once-enslaved African prince, and the next year, she gave birth to a son, Balthasar. Now, in present-day Holland, historian Corinne is having trouble not only with her department head but also with finishing her dissertation, not to mention worries that she may not get a teaching job. In England, Michael is teaching English at Oxford but is bored as well, and tired of college politics. He and Corinne once dated, so when she’s alerted to the discovery of 17th-century documents that include a copy of a play by Aphra Behn, the first British woman playwright, she contacts Michael. Interested, Michael visits her in Holland, carries off the relevant documents, and is soon as absorbed as Corinne in the story of Elizabeth and Pelagius. He learns that the couple’s son lived in London, visited Barbados, and wrote a botanical treatise, and that their grandson, Theodore Stuart, married Godscall Palaeologue, the daughter of the last heir to the Byzantine throne. The Palaeologues settled in Barbados, and Michael now discovers that a Dr. Palaeologue is teaching at the university there. While Corinne fights on in academia, Michael heads for Barbados. There, the doctor turns out to be a comely young black woman called Melita, who warms more to Michael than to the notion that she is the true heir—a Stuart, not a Windsor—to the British throne in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

Agreeable historical fiction that both informs and entertains.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2004

ISBN: 0-618-14914-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2004

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...

FLY AWAY

Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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