Monday, April 25, 2016

REVIEW: The Dark Lady's Mask by Mary Sharratt

The Dark Lady's Mask
by Mary Sharratt

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Page Count: 416
Release Date: April 19, 2016
Format: ARC Paperback

How got: ARC copy from GR giveaway

First attention getter: synopsis


From GoodReads:

Shakespeare in Love meets Shakespeare’s Sister in this novel of England’s first professional woman poet and her collaboration and love affair with William Shakespeare.

London, 1593. Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy, but a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.

Aemilia grabs at the chance to pursue her long-held dream of writing and the two outsiders strike up a literary bargain. They leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they begin secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country — and with Aemilia, his Dark Lady. Their Italian idyll, though, cannot last and their collaborative affair comes to a devastating end. Will gains fame and fortune for their plays back in London and years later publishes the sonnets mocking his former muse. Not one to stand by in humiliation, Aemilia takes up her own pen in her defense and in defense of all women.

The Dark Lady’s Mask gives voice to a real Renaissance woman in every sense of the word.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

I had to laugh at the irony that I finished this book on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the book ended with his death. Made me chuckle. This book was an intriguing look at the world of Elizabethan England in all its finery and squalor. The plight of women and artists in the time frame came to vivid life in Sharratt’s hands.

The author definitely didn’t hold back in her descriptions of Elizabethan England, urban, court life, and sedate country estate. Late 1500s life in Renaissance Venice also was vividly described. I loved all the little details she put in: how life was like in the Jewish ghetto in Venice, different aspects of the alchemical world, the glitter of life in court vs the semi-squalor of its lower class denizens, and the intricacies of patronage for artists and poets of the era.

Yet, what really drew me in was how the author explored the plight of women during the times. Given that the book was about the first published female English poet, the story of women in the times isn’t that far-fetched. But by exploring more than just Aemilia’s story, Sharratt brings to light the story of all the women of Elizabethan England. The dependency of one’s place in the world being determined by the men in your life, having a reputation that could be ruined by just a whisper and how life-threatening it was to have no man in your life are all explored in detail. I cringed and wept more than once for the various fates of these women.

Sharratt’s amazing talent at characterization is what really carries this story. Aemilia is amazingly human, strong against adversity and thinking on her feet to adapt to ever changing situations. Yet, she can also be carried away in the grand sweep of romance and poetry, losing sight of the real world for the glitter of fantasy. I loved how despite the many falls she experiences in life, she still has the guts to pick herself back up and forge a new path for herself. She’s strong and flawed, just like every woman on the planet.

Sharratt also carries over the great characterization skills to her minor characters as well. Shakespeare is both likeable in his poetic glory and hateful in his douche bag misogyny. Alfonse makes you cringe with how pitiful he was, and yet he loved Aemilia with all his heart through all the trials they experienced together. Those are just two great examples of her Sharratt’s secondary characters were as vibrant and life-like as her lead.

In a book I enjoyed more than I expected to, I found a great author to delve more into. She tells a great story, makes her characters come to life, and delves into the historical intricacies like few other authors can. This was a great introduction to Aemilia Bassano, Shakespeare’s possible Dark Lady, and to Mary Sharratt as an author. Recommended for lovers of historical fiction and stories of historical women everywhere!

Note: Book received for free from publisher via GR giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

REVIEW: The Dutch Girl by Donna Thorland

The Dutch Girl
by Donna Thorland

Publisher: NAL
Page Count: 416
Release Date: March 1, 2016
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: personal buy from Amazon

First attention getter: I already loved the series


From GoodReads:

Manhattan and the Hudson River Valley, 1778

The British control Manhattan, the Rebels hold West Point, and the Dutch patroons reign in feudal splendor over their vast Hudson River Valley estates. But the roads are ruled by highwaymen. Gerrit Van Haren, the dispossessed heir of Harenwyck, is determined to reclaim his inheritance from his decadent brother, Andries, even if that means turning outlaw and joining forces with the invading British. Until, that is, he waylays the carriage of beautiful young finishing school teacher Anna Winters…

Anna is a committed Rebel with a secret past and a dangerous mission to secure the Hudson Highlands for the Americans. Years ago, she was Annatje, the daughter of a tenant farmer who led an uprising against the corrupt landlords and paid with his life. Since then, Anna has vowed to see the patroon system swept aside along with British rule. But at Harenwyck she discovers that politics and virtue do not always align as she expects…and she must choose between two men with a shared past and conflicting visions of the future.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

A recent addition to the author’s body of works exploring romance and spy-suspense in the American Revolution, this work pleases on most fronts. I enjoyed it overall, even the part that made me cringe not detracting from overall enjoyment.

Thorland keeps up her talent at exploring lesser known areas of the American Revolutions and the people who populated those events. The leftover Patroon system that survived English control of New Amsterdam for almost a century is vividly portrayed. The two brothers, Andries and Gerrit, show the intimate struggle between the sweeping winds of change coming with the Revolution and how it impacted century’s old customs and families. I loved getting a window into this world and how the war impacted this corner of New York.

Our lead, Anna, was also a real treat. She’s an intricate blend of vulnerability, strength, and guts. She’s willing to stand up to frightening situations and confrontations, all the while shaking inside and clenching her fists to give her strength. I can’t speak for her skills as a spy, a Widow she ain’t. I’m actually a little surprised she was able to bring off the whole deception part amongst people she grew up with so well. Yet, she doesn’t let that hold her back and make her so afraid to do what needs to be done. I loved this blend of bravery and fear; Anna is immediately relatable due to them.

I liked that the author tended to focus on the emotional in Anna’s relationships rather than the physical. Thorland’s books have always been great romances; yet in previous works, she seemed to focus a lot on the physical aspects of the relationships, as well as the whole rape trope for storytelling. While both are present in this latest volume, they’re not nearly as prevalent. Lots of sexual tension but actual consummation is held at a great, low level.

My only cringe at this book was the ending; it happened way too quickly and pat. We had a great momentum going, tension building to a great, danger-filled climax. Sudden confrontation! Danger! Suspense! And then? A few paragraphs and pages of this person married this person, this person did this and that, the end. Wait, what?!?!

There is no resolution at all to the tense struggle between family members, Revolutionaries, and friends. We go from break-neck speed confrontation to peaceful weddings all within the span of a page. There’s no come down at all. It was all very jarring and unenjoyable. Not a great way to end the book.

I enjoyed the unique area of the American Revolution, the story, the characters, and the romance explored. The author did a great job in balancing everything into a cohesive, great whole. The ending sucked in its sudden-ness, but overall, the book was fairly enjoyable. Definitely a book to look into if you enjoy the author and her American Revolution works.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

REVIEW: Sisi by Allison Pataki

Sisi: Empress On Her Own
by Allison Pataki

Publisher: Dial Press
Page Count: 464
Release Date: March 8, 2016
Format: ARC Paperback

How got: ARC from LibraryThing giveaway

First attention getter: loved the first book's characterizations


From GoodReads:
In this sweeping and powerful novel, New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki tells the little-known story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, the Princess Diana of her time. An enthralling work of historical fiction set during the Golden Age of the Habsburg court, Sisi is a gripping page-turner for readers of Philippa Gregory, Paula McLain, and Daisy Goodwin.

Married to Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth - fondly known as Sisi - captures the hearts of her people as their "fairy queen," but beneath that dazzling perception lives a far more complex figure. In mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, the halls of the Hofburg Palace buzz not only with imperial waltzes and champagne but also with temptations, rivals, and cutthroat intrigue. Sisi grows restless, feeling stifled by strict protocols and a turbulent marriage. A free-spirited wanderer, she finds solace at her estate outside Budapest, where she enjoys visits from the striking Hungarian statesman Count Andr├íssy, the man with whom she’s unwittingly fallen in love. But tragic news brings Sisi out of seclusion, forcing her to return to her capital and a world of gossip, envy, and sorrow where a dangerous fate lurks in the shadows.

Through love affairs and loss, Sisi struggles against the conflicting desires to keep her family together or to flee amid the collapse of her suffocating marriage and the gathering tumult of the First World War. In an age of crumbling monarchies, Sisi fights to assert her right to the throne beside her husband, to win the love of her people and the world, and to save an empire. But in the end, can she save herself?

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

A truly satisfying conclusion to this duology, this book rounds out the story of Sisi and the people in her life with great aplomb. I was immersed into the world and its story from page one and felt like I had never left it, even though there is a year in between the readings. This speaks to the power of the author’s writing and her pure skill.

Maybe it was because so much character establishment happened in book one that not a ton of work had to be done, but the personalities in this second volume were so much brighter and vivid than book one. I found I could empathize and understand every person, no matter whether I liked them or not. Even the stodgy Franz (the one I had a very hard time liking in book one) gained some three dimensional aspects that made him a great personality, enough that during the events at the book’s end tore my heart out along with his.

Now Sisi… Egads, what a woman! Strong willed, intelligent, beautiful, self-centered, dramatic, a bit erratic, eccentric… She shines in this book, larger than life, just like when she truly lived. Pataki does an amazing job in portraying this woman’s personality in all its vivid, flawed glory. I reveled in all of Sisi’s triumphs, cried at her sacrifices, and just generally fell in love with her. She’s the star of the show, her story making her amazing reading.

Pataki also excels at her historical details and scene setting, just like last time. Imperial Vienna, peaceful Hungary, bucolic English countryside, and green, lush Irish estates all make for amazing settings for the characters to play out their stories. This was a big bonus in the first book too, and the author doesn’t fail to deliver on this one.

To me, this was the best read of 2016 so far. It’s rich, expansive, character-driven, and beautiful in its dramatic expanse. I lived and breathe the characters, falling in love even though historically I knew where the story was going. Definitely one for the re-read pile!

Note: Book received for free from the publisher in a LibraryThing giveaway in exchange for an honest review.