Historical

“Whispers Beyond the Veil” by Jessica Estevao

 

Book Cover - Whispers Beyond the Veil - Jessica Estevao

“Whispers Beyond the Veil” is the first book in the Change of Fortune series. Jessica Estevao has penned a self-reliant female character who thinks on her feet in risky situations and when cornered, often chooses the path most likely to keep her out of jail.

 

Jail? This is no ordinary gal growing up in a quaint family business. Ruby Proulx is a con artist, who makes a living by taking money from the gullibles passing through the circus tents. But, even with all the flimflam miracle cures and tarot card readings, she and her father are just getting by, in part because he drinks and schemes the earnings away. This is 1890s Canada, and when a dangerous scam results in a death, and her father disappears, she flees south to Maine to an aunt she’s never met.

 

Ruby’s arrival at her aunt Honoria’s hotel is a surprise to everyone except Honoria. Happy to repay Honoria for her kindness, Ruby continues to use her skills with séances and Tarot cards to help her aunt’s hotel survive. A hotel that features ‘spiritualists’ as the main attraction.

 

But, Ruby is caught between skeptics who feel that Honoria is scamming the visitors and stealing their hard-earned money and a wish to have a home she’s never had before. She’d like to fess up that she’s a fraud, but telling the truth may only put her on the street or put her aunt in jail. What’s a con artist to do?

 

The characters are either sweetly oblivious to the cons, in on them, or working hard to expose them. A handsome policeman, a psychic investigator, bodies popping up, and peeks behind the scenes of a con artist’s life, enrich the story, but when Ruby becomes a suspect in several crimes, she must guard both her heart and her skills to escape the snares.

 

With an inventive main character and Old Orchard Beach as the setting, this new series is off to a great start and “Whispers Beyond the Veil” has been nominated for an Agatha Award. Please visit www.jessicaestevao.com for more information about the Change of Fortune books as well as her other series, written as Jessica Crockett, also great fun.

 

 

Greatest Love Stories of All Time

 

HeartsIMG_4243

 

It’s the time of year when bouquets of flowers fill the stores, the gift of a box of chocolates takes on new meaning, and love songs (and movies) fill the airwaves. Swoonworthy stuff, ya’ll.

 

Instead of creating a post about current titles that inspire hearts to flutter, I put out an open call for men and women to name their favorite Greatest Love Stories of All Time. Thanks to Mari Barnes*, Sarah Bewley, Leah Canzoneri, Kait Carson, Peggy Clayton, Joy Ross Davis, Missy Davis, Laura Di Silverio, Saword Broyles Ellis, Terri Gault, Courtney Carter Girton, Sherry Harris, Cynthia Kuhn, Joyce Laferrera, Marj Lilley, Alice Loweecy, Gary Miller, Sylvia Nickels, Debbie York Parker, Nanci Rathbun, Jeanie Smith, Ellis Vidler, and Lynn Chandler Willis for their wonderful suggestions.  *drawing winner  :-)

 

Books are listed in alphabetical order by title, and where available, links to the Greatest Love Stories are included.  Click on the titles and read more about them.               

 

At Home in Mitford” by Jan Karon

“Cinderella Story” by Wendy Logia

Come Rain or Come Shine” by Jan Karon

Dr. Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak

Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen

Shadow of the Moon” by MM Kaye

Somewhere in Time” by Richard Matheson

Soulless” by Gail Carriger

The Far Pavilions” by MM Kaye

The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper 

The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks

The Princess Bride” by William Goldman

The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Baroness Orczy

The Second Coming” by Walker Percy

The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough

 

Are you thinking romantic, weak-at-the-knees thoughts?

Our work is done.  😉    

 

Photo credit:  Patti Phillips

 

 

Top 10: The First Four Years of Nightstand Book Reviews

 

Book Cover - Cold Dish

The first four years of Nightstand Book Reviews delivered a wide range of books to my doorstep and to my email inbox. Right from the beginning, I have received more than 100 requests a month (once over 400) from writers and publicists and friends of writers and publicists to review the latest book they had to offer.

 

It has been a fun problem to have. The strategy was (and remains) to choose great reads to chat about and share with the thousands of Nightstand Book Reviews followers around the world. The books on the site are by and large fiction, and tell a well-plotted story involving nicely developed characters. The authors are a mix of bestselling writers of longstanding, and newbies to the field when I first met them. Traditionally published or ebook only? Both happily co-exist on NBR. Occasionally I highlight biographies, great cookbooks, and helpful gardening books. A new feature in 2016 was Author Profiles. You’ll see more of those in 2017.

 

Below is the list of Top 10 books reviewed on Nightstand Book Reviews over the last four years, listed in ABC order by author. These were the books that garnered the most interest on NBR from the worldwide audience during the four years. Six books on the list were the debut novels from those authors. Some powerhouse writers (long, successful careers with great popularity) mixed in with newbies? A good book is a good book.

 

All of these authors now have multiple books out. Click on the book title to read the review.

 

Lee Child – “The Killing Floor”

 

Robert Dugoni – “My Sister’s Grave”

 

Robert Dugoni – “The Conviction”

 

Sherry Harris – “Tagged for Death”

 

Sue Harrison – “Mother Earth, Father Sky”

 

Erin Hart – “Haunted Ground”

 

Tami Hoag – “Alibi Man”

 

Craig Johnson – “The Cold Dish”

 

Leigh Perry – “A Skeleton in the Family”

 

Andy Weir – “The Martian”

 

 

Have you read any of the titles on the list? Wildly different books to be sure, with thrillers, sci-fi, traditional mysteries, and cozies in the group. 

 

And soooo much fun to read.  :-)

 

Thank you all, kind readers, for being part of the Nightstand Book Reviews community during the first four years. Your comments and participation make me smile as I search for the next great read to share with you.

 

“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain

 

Book Cover - Circling the Sun

Paula McLain’s “Circling the Sun,” is the story of horse trainer/aviator/writer, Beryl Markham. It recalls the remarkable accomplishments of this under sung woman far ahead of her time in Colonial Kenya and explores her relationship with renowned Denys Finch Hatton, safari hunter, and Karen Blixen, author (as Isak Dineson) of “Out of Africa.”

 

Beryl’s father sold everything in England in order to buy a farm in Kenya, but Beryl’s mother could not cope with the stark cultural differences and returned to England with son, Dickie, leaving Beryl behind to be raised by her father.

 

Her father, ill equipped to raise a young girl, was always busy with the hard work of running a farm, so she was frequently left alone and spent a great deal of time with members of a neighboring tribe. She learned their languages and customs and made friends that would be with her for life. The realities of African living shaped Beryl's character and 100 years ago, forged a strength and determination in her that would be unusual even for a woman of today.


“Circling the Sun” tells us that Beryl’s freedom to do what she wanted came with an incredible price. The standards by which she lived in Africa, coming and going as she pleased, affected all her relationships and her view of the world. She was a natural at training horses, but had to battle at every turn to be recognized and accepted. Nothing was ever easy.

 

Interacting in polite Colonial Kenyan society was beyond her understanding. She had no wish to be judged and yet, she was targeted unfairly merely because she was a female. Her casual disregard of the conventional separation of men and women caused her great pain when she attempted to navigate the minefields of marriage, society, and motherhood, even when Royals were involved.


Markham is remembered as the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from East to West, but “Circling the Sun’ spends most of the book on her time as a horse trainer and her interactions with Blixen and Hatton. They played an incredible part in shaping the woman she would become and the choices she would make that placed her in the history books. They were a complicated threesome. Hatton never married either of the women, but had a relationship with both.


The colors and sounds of Africa are a major character in the book and give us a sweeping sense of the majestic nature of the continent and the customs of native Africans. McLain paints a fabulous landscape that keeps us enthralled and gives us a peek into why so many English expats were drawn to the place: Money to be made, worlds to experience, the excitement/danger of safaris, creating something permanent out of the untamed land.

 

Circumstances and the people in her life shaped her, but Markham could not have become the bush pilot or transatlantic pilot she did, without that incredible setting that set her free.

 

A work of historical fiction not to be missed.

 

Please visit www.paulamclain.com for more information about McLain, “Circling the Sun,” and her earlier acclaimed bestseller, “The Paris Wife.”

 

 

 

“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

 

Book Cover - Outlander

 

The “Outlander” series, by Diana Gabaldon, has been a sensation in the historical fiction arena, blending time-travel, romance, and adventure into one terrific story. Why do we love “Outlander?” It’s well-written, crosses genres beautifully, and the broad sweep of the storyline is just plain fun.

 

Claire Randall is a former combat nurse, home from WW2 in 1945. She has been reunited with her husband, Frank, and they are enjoying a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands after a long, war-caused separation. On the lookout for interesting flowers and herbs, she wanders into a circle of ancient stones said to be the legendary Merlin stones, touches one of the stones and disappears. That is, disappears from 1945 and pops up in 1743 – right into the middle of the Jacobite rebellion, with Bonnie Prince Charlie attempting to take over the throne of England.

 

With her English and slightly alien accent, she is soon called Sassenach (an outlander) by the MacKenzie clan that rescues her from an assault by a British soldier (her husband’s ancestor) and is suspected by everyone of being a spy. But, for whom? Her rescuers, in part to use her as a bargaining chip, keep her hostage.

 

Her skill as a healer is discovered when she meets injured Jamie Fraser and that ensures her safety until her fate can be decided. “Outlander” reveals Gabaldon’s tremendous amount of research into the uses of botanicals for healing both in 1945 and two hundred years earlier. We are treated to descriptions of herbs, the drugs available in both centuries, the limits of medicine in the 1700s, the choices available, and even the handling of prisoners. The wisdom of the modern medical era is applied to herbal remedies of the 1700s, but often, Claire just has to make do.

 

Gabaldon has written the developing relationship between Claire and Jamie realistically within the constraints of the time travel strand. Claire can’t reveal when she is really from – nobody would understand it – and Jamie does not quite trust her since her circumstances don’t really ring true. Claire has a modern sense of humor and Jamie is puzzled by her references to John Wayne and her cursing. And, yet, they each feel an attraction as they are thrown together repeatedly during the action. The complexity of Scottish clan rivalry is explored, alliances for and against the British are created, and Claire occasionally uses her knowledge of history to protect the people in her immediate circle.

 

“Outlander” succeeds in part because of its intimate portrait of a marriage, with its moments of personal truths, physical intimacy, enduring love, and sometimes hilarious banter. Two strong-willed people are forced into a union of convenience in order to save their lives and the relationship is raw and wonderful. There are sometimes tender and sometimes rough, bedroom scenes between Jamie and Claire. There are graphic descriptions of an attempted rape as well as an actual rape with another character. Gabaldon does not mince words, so be forewarned that this is well-done adult reading.

 

The Jacobite rebellion and the surrounding political turmoil drive the tale, but it’s the characters that keep us spellbound until the last page. There are good guys and bad, some of whom are both in order to survive in a dangerous political climate, and one who is undeniably evil. We don’t always know whom to trust. The supporting characters are colorful, complex, as well as entertaining, and add depth and realism to the multi-layered plot.

 

The time travel is brilliantly handled. Claire tries on multiple occasions to return to the stones in order to get back to her own time, but as she falls more deeply in love with Jamie, she is torn between leaving him and her responsibility to the husband she left behind. Along the way, she discovers that she may not be the only person who has traveled through the stones.

 

I laughed during the engaging dialogue, cringed at the choices that needed to be made and cried during some desperate moments for more than one character. When the book ended, I was very happy that there were more titles in the series to be read.

 

The novel won the Romance Writers of America's RITA Award for Best Romance of 1991. The first seven books in the series sold over twenty million copies and landed on the NYT bestseller lists six times. The eighth book in the series was published in June, 2014. A TV series based on the first book, “Outlander,” debuted in the USA in August, 2014.

 

For more information about Diana Gabaldon and her work, please visit www.dianagabaldon.com

 

 

 

 

“Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell

 

Book cover - Agincourt copy

Set in the 1400s, “Agincourt” delivers a graphic account of one of the most important battles of the age. Underfunded, overconfident and thoroughly lucky, the English king, Henry V, decides he needs to conquer Agincourt in order to claim the French crown and maintain his dominance of the Normandy coast. He must overcome formidable odds and expensive, incredible losses on hostile foreign soil, and yet he marches on. Any real battle strategy is thrown to the wind as the French forces keep outwitting the English. If you don’t already know the actual story of Agincourt, the book will keep you guessing until the end.

 

The tale is told from an archer’s viewpoint. It’s not a new storytelling technique to have a warrior relate the action, but interesting in this case because the skill of English archers was feared throughout the world. If you had a few hundred archers on your side, you would most likely win the battle. They were the early medieval equivalent of our modern day artillery, yet their quivers only held about twenty arrows at a time. Think about it. Twenty ‘shots’ before having to be resupplied from a packhorse shared by other archers. Survival depended on having quick, deadly aim and well-made arrows that flew true.

 

As always, “Agincourt” is meticulously researched, and Cornwell accomplishes a literary feat few authors can claim – he makes a battle fascinating, while at the same time never letting us forget about the violence. From the description of exhausted men slogging through muddy tracks to the subplots of personal bickering over lands, women and food, war is depicted as grim, hard work accomplished for the glory of the nation and king.

 

Body armor and weapons of the era are discussed in terms of their merits for particular campaigns, and in very human terms – “armored men on foot were less vulnerable to arrows than horses…”

 

I keep coming back to Cornwell for more, wishing that my school history books could have made the events of that century come to life in the way he does. If Cornwell ever gives up the mighty pen for the more prosaic life of an ancient history professor, his classes would be standing room only.

 

For more information about Cornwell and his work, please visit www.bernardcornwell.net

Read the review of Cornwell's "Sword Song" here.

 

 

“Mother Earth Father Sky” by Sue Harrison

 

Book Cover - Mother Earth Father Sky

 

 

The time is 9,000 years ago. Chagak lives a simple life beneath “Mother Earth Father Sky” in the Aleutian Islands. She helps the other women skin seals, smooth the hides with volcanic rock, sing songs to praise the hunters, and weave curtains and sleeping mats from grass that grows in the area. Her mother creates a special suk for her from bird skins and cormorant feathers to celebrate her transition into womanhood. Chagak is about to be married to a young seal hunter she likes and life is as it should be. Her routine is one that all the women in her village have always had, against the constant background of the roar of the wind and the sea.

 

One day, while Chagak is gathering berries and grass, her village is attacked and unknown warriors butcher everyone in it, including her betrothed. Her own group is not a war faring tribe; they hunt seals, not people, so she cannot understand the why. As the lone survivor (except for her infant brother) she has the gruesome duty of burying everyone, saving their spirits for the travel to the afterlife. Harrison’s expressive writing reveals the emotional trauma that Chagak endures while dealing with the worst parts of life.

 

Chagak knows her best chance of continued survival is to summon all her strength, take an ik (small canoe) and find the Whale Hunters village of her mother’s family across the open water. She hopes that her grandfather will take her and her brother in. During her journey, she stops at a beach to rest and encounters an old man, Shuganan, a renowned ivory carver who persuades her to stay. He cares for her as a granddaughter, keeping her safe when he can. Their relationship becomes precious to both of them and they use it to defend against unwelcome visitors who may have been the attackers at Chagak’s former village.

 

What follows is a saga of ancient rituals of the prehistoric Ice Age, descriptions of infinitely different roles of men and women, splendid tales of the origin of the world as understood by the First Men, and the awakening of a young woman’s spirit. Harrison has created a moving story of jealousy, betrayal, devastating loss, courage, murder, and greed surrounding the beautiful, gentle Chagak. Despite the harsh realities of Chagak’s life dependent on men, some of whom could be (and were) brutal, she learns to survive and even triumph.
 

“Mother Earth Father Sky” is meticulously researched, with incredible detail about the customs and implements used at the time.  A beached whale is reduced to bone and steaks and blubber on the page. We read that fat is carefully simmered, then separated into use for cooking and oiling skins. We learn how ulaqs are constructed and why the ikyaks stay afloat. A recent visit to a Natural History Museum was made more ‘real’ by having read Harrison’s debut novel. 

 

Chagak is only 13 in “Mother Earth Father Sky,” but we can surmise from archeological digs that she would have been considered of marriageable age as soon as she entered puberty. When young children developed enough dexterity/strength to hold a spear or weave a mat, they were trained to acquire life skills that supported the group in some way – skin seals, gather roots and eggs, collect driftwood for roofs, clean bones for clothing and housing. It was a harsh life by today’s standards of dishwashers and big box stores and restaurants, but for them, it was merely life. Chagak had long been a contributing member of her clan.

 

I ‘met’ Sue Harrison on Twitter and looked into her work, discovering that the prehistoric series, ‘The Ivory Carver Trilogy,’ was out-of-print and hard to find. I persisted in my search because of my interest in the Pacific Northwest and the Aleuts and acquired “Mother Earth Father Sky” through a used book dealer. Now that Harrison has been able to have the novels published as ebooks, I can share the review of this marvelous title.

 

 

Please visit www.sueharrison.com for more information about this bestselling author, her other series and projects.