Back to the Kentucky Frontier with Laura Frantz

THE COLONEL’S LADY, Laura Frantz, Revell, 2011,  9780800733414

After a failed romance, Roxanna Rowan leaves her genteel Virginia life and travels to the wild Kentucky frontier of 1779. She plans to join her soldier father at an isolated wilderness fort, but he has been killed in action. Roxanna is stranded at the outpost with the dashing Colonel McLinn, one of Washington’s western commanders. McLinn, whom Frantz tells us was inspired by George Rogers Clark, struggles with secrets that can cost him his relationship with Roxanna as well as a military victory over the British and Native Americans in Kentucky and Ohio.

While the plot requirements sometimes throw Roxanna int TSTL situations (where she seems Too Stupid To Live), Frantz’s prose shimmers with power and poetry. The story is morally strong without being preachy or pedantic.Roxanna and McLinn build a lasting love despite steep obstacles and bitter betrayals both personal and political. This is a richly textured tale of love, forgiveness, and redemption by faith set against a vivid backdrop of frontier warfare. It is a keeper, and highly recommended.

A World War II Story North of the Arctic Circle

REVONTULI, by Andrew Eddy, Booktrope, 2013, 9782956625308

I reviewed this wintry book for the November, 2014 issue of Historical Novels Review. 

Set in war-torn Europe between 1940 and 1944, this story tells how the Germans occupied and then destroyed the Sami people’s lands in the Finnmark–Norway’s northernmost county, lying fully within the Arctic Circle. The Sami, sometimes called Lapps, are nomadic reindeer herders. Their ancient culture and ability to live off the land stood them in good stead during the German occupation and the scorched earth policy that followed.

Marit is half-Sami and half-Norwegian, living on a farm outside the village of Karasjok. Like others of her friends and family, she is strongly affected by the brutal treatment the Germans afford their eastern European slave laborers. During the occupation she falls in love with Hans, a young German soldier. Their story is heartbreaking, although probably not unusual for their circumstances and for that era in history. Marit and her mother, among many others, are evacuated to Tromsø, where they are fortunate to have family. Eventually they return to the mined and burnt-out Finnmark, where their Sami culture prevails, and Marit’s future appears hopeful, if not traditional.

The magical, Nordic setting of forests, fields, lakes, and rivers under the Revontuli (Finnish for “fox’s fire,” or northern lights) adds interest to the deeply emotional but fairly predictable love story. The depictions of traditional Sami life and folklore are riveting.

World War II buffs and anyone interested in the Finnmark and the Sami culture should enjoy this book. It illuminates what to most is probably a little-known wartime event. A historical note with more information about Karasjok and the rugged endurance of the Sami would have been welcome, but it is not really necessary. Recommended.

A Nordic Medieval Story

ON THE COLD COASTS, Vilborg Davidsdottir, AmazonCrossing, 2012, 9781611090956

I reviewed this unusual, wintry book in the November, 2012 issue of Historical Novels Review.

In 15th-century Iceland, Ragna Gautadottir is innocently put in an unfortunate situation when she is fourteen. Impregnated by an English sailor who then disappears, she bears a child and is considered a fallen woman. Medieval Icelandic society is dominated by men and by the church., and in this moral climate, her fiancé repudiates her. She eventually becomes a bishop’s housekeeper, and her former betrothed becomes a priest. Their love rekindles, but Thorkell cannot marry and Ragna refuses to become his concubine. Against the backdrop of Icelandic society and the international and church politics of the time, Ragna strives to build a good life for herself and her son.

This portrait of a medieval woman and her life in a cold, rugged land is fascinating. Iceland is a character in itself. Flashes of the Viking heritage illuminate the bleak, grim story, especially in the fight scenes toward the end of the book. Some may find it difficult to understand why Ragna’s parents made her so vulnerable or why she continues to be drawn to an unsympathetic leading man. The book’s ending does not fully resolve the story; a sequel would be welcome. Davidsdottir is a multi published author of Nordic historicals, but this is her only title translated into English. It would be nice to see more.

One of My Favorite Christmas Books

CHRISTMAS AT FAIRACRE, Miss Read, 2006, Orion Books, 9780752877976

This is an omnibus collection containing “No Holly for Miss Quinn” (1976), “The Christmas Mouse” (1973), and a very short five or six page description of Fairacre School’s end-of-term just before the Christmas break (1955).

Miss Read is the pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, an English schoolteacher and novelist who died in 2012. She started writing after World War II, and is best known for her charming, witty, and ironic novels of English village life.

I own almost every book Miss Read ever wrote, and couldn’t really say whether I prefer the Thrush Green series or the Fairacre books. Since I’ve already posted my reviews of the only two HNR Christmas books I was assigned over the years, I’ve turned to my own bookshelves to find a holiday recommendation. There is nothing  more relaxing than a trip back to Miss Read’s imaginary village of Fairacre some forty or fifty years ago.  At Christmastime  Miss Quinn must deal with an unexpected change of plans, and  two late night visitors almost  upend Christmas at the Fuller cottage. Miss Read and her class are busy giving a tea party at the school.

Christmas at Fairacre makes a nice start for new readers. The stories are set in the Fairacre world, but don’t follow the recurring characters in the books. New fans can go back and start reading the series in order, starting with Village School, first published in 1955.

An Icelandic Mystery

THE FLATEY ENIGMA, Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Amazon Crossing, 2012, 9781611090970

I wanted to step away from Christmas books this week, and recommend something  for a good winter read that isn’t holiday-oriented. This review appeared in the August, 2012 issue of Historical Novels Review.

When seal hunters find a decaying corpse on a deserted Icelandic island, it triggers an investigation involving a secret runic code and a medieval manuscript. The body turns out to be a Danish intellectual who has been missing for months. A second victim is later found mutilated in the old Viking fashion. Kjartan, the district magistrate’s representative, is charged with finding the killer. He eventually solves the mysteries as the plot winds slowly through the quiet, austere, near-subsistence lives of the Flatey islanders circa 1960. The author lived on Flatey as a child, and the stark simplicity of the islanders’ lives comes through with vivid authenticity.

This Glass Key prize-nominated book moves slowly at first, with much emphasis on the remote Nordic setting. Readers looking for those best-selling Scandinavian thrillers that have been so popular recently will not find them here. This is a tale of people who eat fermented shark, start fires with dried bird skin, and hunt seals for food and fur. Every chapter ends with an excerpt from the Viking sagas found in the Flatey Book (Flateyjarbok). Often brutal and barbaric, they provide clues to the enigma that Ingolfsson has created and woven into the story. This book is complicated and intense, with Icelandic names making it difficult for an English speaker to keep track of the players. There is also a love story and a touch of whimsy.

The book is a one-off. It does not really compare to anything else, but Viktor Ingolfsson is a successful, multi-published author, with one of his six mysteries used as the basis for an Icelandic television series. The Flatey Enigma  is worth a look.

A 1940s Christmas Story

HOME AND AWAY,  by Dean Hughes, Shadow Mountain Publishing, 2015, 9781629720937

This World War II Christmas tale’s review appeared in the May, 2016 HNR.

During World War II, Glen Hayes is away fighting in Germany while his parents, younger brother Dennis, and two little sisters worry and wait at home in small-town Utah. This Christmas story alternates between war-torn Europe, where Glen deals with the horror of battle, and the family’s mundane life, with its strains of low income and class differences.

As Christmas approaches, Norma and Hal Hayes endure their tense marriage, with Norma often being wounded by Hal’s unkindness. Hal is hurt in his own way by feelings of inadequacy. Dennis struggles to accumulate enough money for Norma’s special Christmas gift, while exploring the thrill of a first crush. Sharon, age six, and nine-year-old Linda are the only family members seemingly unaffected by the miseries of wartime. Suspense builds as the Hayeses agonize over Glen. The reader will also worry as Glen’s outfit, the 101st Airborne, endures hellacious conditions during the Battle of the Bulge.

This is a short, sweet book, a nostalgic read that could make a nice holiday stocking stuffer. Readers should keep tissues nearby, as tears may start to flow toward the end of the story.

Creepy Christmas

A CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING, Anne Perry, Ballantine, 2011, 9780345524638

It’s Black Friday today, and not quite the Christmas season, so I thought I’d post my February, 2012  HNR review of this un-Christmassy Christmas story.

Perry’s 2011 Christmas novella has little to do with Christmas: the reader looking for holly and ivy will be disappointed. This is a Victorian, horror-tinged murder mystery with a vampire theme. A company of players is hired to help a wealthy family’s daughter rewrite and produce a play based on the then-popular book, Dracula. They all become snowbound in an isolated mansion, and a gruesome murder takes place. It is solved by Caroline Fielding, the mother-in-law of Perry’s policeman character Thomas Pitt.  She is at the mansion to accompany her actor husband, but there is no need to be familiar with the Pitt stories in order to understand this stand-alone short novel.

Overlooking the fact that there is no holiday warmth or cheer whatsoever, this is a gripping, fast-paced traditional mystery with an intriguing cast of both sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. The vampire theme and gradually increasing sense of evil and horror keep the pages turning, although the story seems better suited to Halloween. If jolly carol-singing and hearty bowls of wassail are not necessary in your Christmas fiction, this shivery nugget makes for a fast, entertaining read.

Cultures Clash on the Frontier

THE WOODS’S EDGE, Lori Benton, WaterBrook, 2015,  9781601427328

I’m fortunate enough to live near many French and Indian  war sites. Fort William Henry in Lake George, NY,  makes an easy day trip, and while it is a reconstruction, the sense of history there is strong.   I reviewed The Wood’s Edge,  in the May, 2015, issue of HNR.

In 1757 when Fort William Henry falls to the French and Indians, Major Reginald Aubrey switches his dead newborn for a live Native American baby. Aubrey’s wife is not aware of the deception, but the Indian mother–actually a white captive–is conscious and remembers what happened. As the years go by, the Oneida family mourns for their lost child, and eventually discovers his whereabouts. Major Aubrey is tormented by guilt as he raises He-Is-Taken to believe he is William Aubrey, a British gentleman. William’s Oneida twin, Two-Hawks, secretly watches the property. He and Aubrey’s adopted daughter, Anna, fall in love.

The suspense is drawn out over many pages, as both William’s Native-American and English family and friends are deeply affected. Major Aubrey, widowed and tortured by his sin, has difficulty accepting new love from healer Lydia–who has always known the truth. William is horrified when he discovers his true identity. He disappears into Canada, even as his two families come together in determination to find him.

This novel is gripping but clearly needs the sequel which will come out in 2016. (I plan to post my review of A Flight of Arrows next week.)

Where is Keith Thompson?

SCOUNDREL! THE SECRET MEMOIRS OF GENERAL JAMES WILKINSON, Keith Thompson, NorLights Press, 2012, 9781935254638

This humorous, well-researched novel of the American Revolution seems to be a one-off. There never was a sequel, at least not so far. I reviewed it back in the August, 2012 issue of Historical Novels Review, and even now, seven years later, I’m keeping my eyes open for Keith Thompson’s next one.

Historian Keith Thompson blends facts and fiction to tell a hilarious, riveting tale of James Wilkinson and the American Revolution. Thompson wrote his master’s thesis on Wilkinson, and he knows this deplorable historical figure inside and out. Thompson pretends to have found Wilkinson’s secret memoirs, and thus is able to tar this self-serving, treacherous conspirator almost more blackly than history actually does.

“Wilky” joins the rebelling Americans in 1776. Moving in the highest circles, this future army general participates reluctantly in the siege of Boston and Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Canada. He crosses the Delaware with Washington, although his intent is to betray the Americans for monetary gain. Wilkinson is amoral and lacks any conscience whatsoever. He is cowardly, dishonest, a backstabber, and a seducer of innocent women.

Thompson’s interpretation of early American history is contrarian, rich in detail, laugh-out-loud funny, and absolutely compelling. Heartbreaking descriptions of starving, ragged American troops in Canada and New Jersey provide dramatic counterpoint to the general tone of droll irreverence. The sensuality level is fairly mild, despite Wilkinson’s frequent skirt-chasing. His inventive love maneuver, the “Wilky Roll,” is probably impossible, but will have the reader rolling, too–onto the floor with laughter.

Thompson was lucky enough to obtain flattering cover blurbs from Wilkinson’s contemporaries. George Washington terms the novel: “A book that should be read by all Americans.” Thomas Jefferson comments: “I would recommend this book above all others.” Their “praise” is a little overstated, but Scoundrel, the first in a series, is highly recommended.

The Southold Chronicles Volume 1

A PLACE IN HIS HEART, by Rebecca DeMarino, Revell, 2014, 9780800722180

This 1600s England-to-New York family saga was later followed by To Capture Her Heart and To Follow Her Heart. I eventually reviewed them all, but this first book introduces the Hortons. My review appeared five years ago in the November, 2014 issue of Historical Novels Review. I’ve always felt that the author being a descendant made the stories more real, even though they are highly fictionalized.

Based on actual family history, this story opens in 1630 England and ends in 1640 Long Island, New York. Mary Langton has been jilted at the altar, but later falls in love with widower Barnabas Horton. She marries him knowing that he still longs for his dead wife, and much of the story relates how Mary raises his sons, manages their home, and accompanies him to America. Barnabas had not told Mary before their marriage that he planned to emigrate. Mary seems almost too good to be true as she leaves everything behind her to go to a new land with a man she knows does not love her. Her seeming barrenness is another problem for the couple. It is difficult to understand why Mary, with every advantage of beauty, personality, and background, would accept a man who is quite open about the fact that he grieves his dead wife, and only needs a mother for his sons, a bedmate, and a housekeeper. Mary’s history of being jilted is said to have made her unmarriageable in their village, but this seems unlikely. Her motivation seems to be simply that she loves Barnabas and will put up with anything to be with him.

Scenes set in England are vivid, but the story really takes off after the family comes to New England in 1637. They leave Massachusetts for Long Island, where their marriage meets one final test. A heartbreaking secret from Barnabas’s past is revealed, and he and Mary are finally able to look forward as a family to building their home and their church on Long Island.

This is a compelling debut for author Rebecca DeMarino, the ninth great-granddaughter of Mary Langton and Barnabas Horton.