Ireland, Justina. Dread Nation. 2018. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2019.
Paperback | $9.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062570611 | 451 pages | Historical Fiction/Horror
Dread Nation saved me from falling deep into a massive slump, when I found that some of the other books I tried weren’t keeping my attention. However, despite my general dislike of zombie stories, this story captured me due to the way it took that and combined it with such dark historical events with such skill, that it kept me enthralled the whole way through. While there are some stylistic things that I often dislike, I felt they worked well in terms of engaging me in the narrative.
Jane is a great narrator and protagonist, and while she can be a little unlikable at times, I found her compelling, and her growth throughout the story only makes her more so. I think it’s great to see her genuine reactions to the issues going on, whether it be the racial tensions or the heightened threat to their lives.
This is an incredibly unique book, bringing a fun twist to two very distinct genres and delivers messages that are incredibly relevant and timely. I recommend this to historical fiction fans and zombie lovers alike.
Jenkins, Beverly. Rebel. New York: Avon Books, 2019.
Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062861689 | 373 pages | Historical Romance–Reconstruction
After finally reading some Beverly Jenkins books earlier this year, I was excited to see what she would bring to the table with this new release, Rebel, especially given the very bold series title, “Women Who Dare,” and an incredibly exciting premise.
And, of course, Jenkins delivers, presenting two compelling leads. Valinda is the standout of Rebel, who is teaching a class of freedmen and women, placing her in a position that subjects her to the injustices that are rife against Black people in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. Drake LeVeq is a worthy counterpart for her, in his own work for the Freedmen’s Bureau. And while their relationship is one that is kind of insta-lust-y, it is still such a beautiful story, and one where I found myself rooting for them every step of the way.
I also continue to love how dedicated Jenkins is to her research, recreating the tense atmosphere of the times in a way that left me feeling like I had learned a lot more about it than I ever had in any classroom lecture.
This novel is a gem, and Beverly Jenkins continues to prove why she’s essentially a rock star in the romance community, solidifying my desire to read more of her books in the future. And I recommend anyone who hasn’t read this one (or any Jenkins books) to pick this one or any of her historicals up if they want a good blend of education and entertainment.
Benedict, Marie. Carnegie’s Maid. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2018.
Hardcover | $25.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492646617 | 281 pages | Historical Fiction
Carnegie’s Maid caught my attention almost immediately, although I admit I took a while to actually pick it up, given I had only a passing interest in Andrew Carnegie as a major financial supporter of libraries, and perhaps a vague idea of him as a Gilded Age and early 20th century industrialist. However, again seeking more books set in this time period, I decided to finally give it a go.
I was intrigued by Benedict’s approach to Carnegie as a character, as it really showed a juxtaposition of his humble origins (which I wasn’t aware of beforehand) and his lofty ambitions. While it’s something I had seen before in some of the other novels I had read, I loved seeing the way the seeds were sown for him to go from being just another rags-to-riches snob to someone who actually reflects on his origins and works to fund resources to help immigrants coming to America for a better life.
But Clara is definitely the star of the book, and I love how her situation as an immigrant herself draws on more than just being a fictional character who spends most of the book in the sphere of Carnegie and his family, but also looks at the day-to-day existence of many immigrant women during the period. Benedict’s remarks on the personal connection she drew on in her own family history to create Clara was wonderful.
And while it’s only briefly touched on at the end, it’s wonderful to see a woman like Clara find success that doesn’t necessarily involve marriage and the domestic sphere, and also alluding to the role that Carnegie Libraries played in helping provide other immigrants (and the general public overall) with access to education, a legacy which continues today.
This is a wonderful book that highlights the poignant story of coming to America and working to better oneself. I would recommend this to anyone who loves a great historical fiction story.
Jenkins, Beverly. Forbidden. New York: Avon Books, 2016.
Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062389008 | 370 pages | Western Romance
Forbidden was an unexpected surprise for me, given the fact I actually DNFed it ages ago. However, it should not have surprised me, given how much more open-minded of a reader I have become in terms of genres and settings since then. That said, this is one book that is definitely worth the hype, and one I pinch myself for not seeing its worth sooner, considering its a romance I love for its substantiveness in tackling real world issues within the context of the historical period, that also still feel very relevant today.
Rhine’s story arc gripped me, in spite of not having read the book where he initially appears, because I’m so fascinated by the complex and controversial phenomenon of passing. Jenkins managed to portray his reasons for doing so in his past, while also showing that he still has compassion for the Black and African American people in his community when many of the White people he associates with still think Blacks beneath them. And through the development of his bond with Eddy, I felt like the stakes were convincing in terms of him being compelled to make a choice that might have negative consequences. And I love the strength of Eddy herself, having gone through her own difficulties in the past, showing courage in various moments of the story, like the decision to go out into the great unknown to pursue her dream to begin with, and her choice to fight off an assailant, which leads to her being stranded in the desert.
I also liked the way the secondary characters were active parts of the story without being too overwhelming. Sylvia and Doc Randolph’s romantic arc was a subtle subplot that allowed me to root for them without them stealing page time from Rhine and Eddy. I am also anxious to continue the series and see how things pan out for Portia and Regan, especially considering Portia’s observations concerning relationships with men gleaned from living with her mother.
I would recommend this to fans who love historical romances, especially those who love stories with depth and just as much history as there is romance.
Alexander, Tamera. To Wager Her Heart. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0310349686. $15.99 USD.
The final book in Tamera Alexander’s Belle Meade Plantation is as wonderful as many of her other books I’ve read, and with this being the final book in this series, I lament saying goodbye to lovely extended cast of characters, especially Uncle Bob and the rest of the employees at Belle Meade, although I expect, based on the introduction I got in Christmas at Carnton, that I will enjoy that series as it comes out just as much.
Once again, Alexander does not shy away from realistic depictions of social issues at the time, with this book focusing on the efforts of the real-life freedmen’s school Fisk University. With her Tennessee plantation series featuring heroines who are incredibly forward-thinking, I was pleased to meet Alexandra, who goes against her father’s wishes and gives up everything she has known to help with the university, and ultimately finds success.
She also depicts the tragedies surrounding train accidents, and I love how she puts real obstacles in the way of Alexandra being on common ground with Sylas, as she holds his father responsible for the train accident that caused her fiance’s death. But I also love how they didn’t spend the bulk of the book bickering. I did find the romance this time around a little less believable than in some of Alexander’s prior books, with the chemistry not being as evident as it was in some of the other books in the series. There also didn’t seem to be a build-up to her feelings for Sylas overtaking her feelings for her dead fiance, especially since she spent most of the book mourning him and modeling her life on some of the things he valued. However, since she and Sylas have fairly good camaraderie in a non-romantic sense, I don’t think it takes away too much from the overall story, especially given everything else the book deals with.
Alexander, Tamera. A Note Yet Unsung. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0764206245, $15.99 USD.
I was excited to hear that A Note Yet Unsung was a RITA Award Finalist for Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, and, now having finished the book, I am rooting for it to win. Tamera Alexander is consistent in providing moving stories with both strong emotional and spiritual growth, as well as a deep emotional connection between the hero and heroine, and this one is no exception.
This final installment in the Belmont Mansion focuses on the third form of art that Adelicia Acklen was known for prizing, that of music, and there are many beautiful classic songs referenced throughout the narrative, capturing their beauty. However, it also looks at the issues surrounding the industry at the time, through the heroine, Rebekah. Women are still largely barred for playing music in an orchestra, but she refuses to give up on her dream, despite any opposition in her way And while Tate is a bit of a traditionalist in that regard at first, through his growing bond with her, he decides to encourage her to pursue a career in music. I also love that both Rebekah and Tate have complicated family relationships that at first they don’t share with one another, leading in some cases to negative assumptions. Both came from less-than-ideal circumstances, but both had people who were there to foster their love of music.
And while each book in the series, and the companion series Belle Meade Plantation, stand alone, there have been references and occasional cameo appearances from characters in prior books. As such, I loved the scene at the end where all the heroes and heroines of the Belmont Mansion series are together, as that provides a sense of closure to the series.
Alexander, Tamera. To Win Her Favor. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0-310-29107-7. $15.99 USD.
This is yet another beautiful book by Tamera Alexander, once again weaving a compelling story that also focuses on social issues that stem from the effects of the Civil War and continue to affect us today. The major theme of this book is prejudice, both racial and gender prejudice, and we see how the characters work to overcome the barriers that these prejudices place on them.
It was particularly fascinating to learn about the prejudices against the Irish through Cullen’s perspective, and how they affect him, in addition to the actions of some of his less honorable family members. Pairing him with Maggie, who has passion for thoroughbred racing, when he has sworn off it, creates believable conflict. I admire how, once everything was out in the open, they actually came to compromise, and showed that their relationship would last, despite not coming together initially under the most ideal circumstances.
Something I noted a few others did take issue with was the sexual content, including one scene where the Cullen and Maggie are undressing. I found the scene rather tame by comparison to what appears in secular books, and the act would be acceptable from a historical context, and presumably from a religious context as well, if the author felt that writing it did not clash with her faith, and her editor did not object to it either on similar grounds. But, as always, take my opinions and presumptions with a grain of salt, as I understand that everyone does have different comfort levels when it comes to their reading.
Alexander, Tamera. A Beauty So Rare. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0-7642-0623-8. $14.99 USD.
A Beauty So Rare is just as wonderful as the first in the series in terms of providing a sense of time and place, but it does expand on the changing world in the Reconstruction years beyond the issues with rights for freed slaves and the tenuous relations between the North and South, looking more intimately at the losses among the war widows and their families, as well as issues among immigrants and the possibility of more opportunities for women in the future.
It is the vision of the latter that makes the heroine, Eleanor, so compelling. Despite being told that it is not proper for someone of her status to work, she is determined to pursue that path and put her talent as a cook to good use, especially when she finds there are others who are less fortunate that are in need.
Marcus is a very different hero that I would have expected from a novel from this subgenre, but I love that through him and his family, we also get a sense of the equally intriguing and dramatic events going on in Austria at the time, under the second-to-last Austrian emperor, and how disenchanted he becomes with the expectations placed upon him. He evolves into a much more humble person throughout the book, whereas before, he might have been more inclined to give into the pleasures that his title would have offered.
A central part of the book is its focus on different types of beauty. While the perception of one’s physical beauty is discussed in the book, the beautiful things that stand out are descriptions of both Marcus’ and Eleanor’s creations. Marcus’ work with architecture and especially the gardens are so beautifully described, and there are equally as many descriptions of Eleanor’s food, which left me craving the things she was making, especially strudel, which she makes frequently for Marcus in the book.
Alexander, Tamera. To Whisper Her Name. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0310291060. $15.99 USD.
Tamera Alexander presents another nuanced, multifaceted story about post-Civil War Tennessee in To Whisper Her Name, this time looking more closely at the lingering conflicts between the Union and the South in a way that feels both realistic to the times and refreshing to see the different perspectives that existed during the period.
I love that this story and the setting at Belle Meade presented an opportunity to further explore the freed slaves’ experiences, examining both how much changed for them and how much did not in terms of the opportunities for black workers and the way they were treated.
I was quickly drawn to Ridley and his reasons for making the decision to fight for the North during the war, with him presenting things he witnessed firsthand that motivated his decision. But I also came to feel for those who lived at Belle Meade and their acquaintances, and was touched how Alexander discussed how much everyone lost fighting this war.
Though I wasn’t sure about Olivia at first, she grew on me over time as she evolved over the course of the story. She overcomes quite a few challenges, many of which stem from her difficult marriage to her first husband, and through it all, Ridley is there for her. And even though I’m not a massive fan of stories with deception at its heart, I love the way it played out here, with it working itself out in a way that felt realistic to all their characters, including Olivia.
Alexander, Tamera. A Lasting Impression. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0-7642-0622-1. $14.99 USD.
This is my first book my Tamera Alexander, and my first purely Southern historical read. I was apathetic to the genre and setting due to the fact that I was one of those people who believed some of the stereotypes about the South, not to mention that I did not know how you would make Southern characters in the aftermath of the Civil War sympathetic. But Alexander changed my perspective on both counts.
This is a rich book with well-defined characters who you can root for. The female characters in particular shine brightly. Claire is an example of someone who was in an awful situation, but shows she has a conscience and doesn’t approve at all of what the people around her were doing, when she made her escape. And she shows her potential for more through her work at Belmont Mansion, both as Adelicia Acklen’s liaison and as an artist in her own right. And Adelicia Acklen herself is wonderful to read about, as we see a woman who is not only wealthy and well-respected in society, but is compassionate toward those less fortunate than herself.
One thing that did make me nervous was the way Alexander would deal with the concept of race. The book is not PC, which I appreciate, as it gives insight into how these people would have actually thought, including the usage of the N-word in dialogue. And while Sutton expressing that their freed slaves should have stayed on as hired hands to support them in the tragic events that followed did make me angry at him for a while, it only adds greater emphasis the author’s focus on historical accuracy.
Other than that, Sutton is a great hero, and I love that he is different from a lot of the heroes I have read in that the war has left him insecure financially, to contrast with all of his super-rich/titled counterparts. And I love that the plot allows for a different approach from the conventional one when it comes to the relationship. The romantic tension is evident throughout, but the main story concludes with things left unresolved in terms of the romance, leaving it to the epilogue. While this is not a structural choice that always works, I feel like it was successful here.