Reading Fanatic Reviews

Historical Literary Fiction

L’Agent Double by Kit Sergeant

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L'Agent Double*

Breathtaking Book of Real WWI Female Spies

Oh, my gosh! What an utterly fantastic book, a genuinely gripping read! I had read the previous book in the series about the Civil War female spies, but I believe that this book even surpasses that one. This book tells the tales of three female spies during World War I, one who may be perhaps the most notorious female spy ever, Mata Hari. The book follows the chronological order of the conflict, so we experience the war as it unfolds through time through these women’s eyes and experiences. While, of course, the conversations and some scenes are wholly fictionalized, the author has done a tremendous depth and breadth of research into these real female spies of WWI. She made these women come alive on the page; their experiences are no less real. I found it easy to empathize with the two women who were on the right side of history. I particularly resonated with Marthe, as I could completely relate to her struggles through the war as I am a nurse myself. In modern times, the nursing ethical code is drummed into us from the first days of nursing school. Back in the day, women who were drawn to nursing might not have been taught ethics directly, but they would have had a moral code that included a depth of compassion and genuine care for humanity to do such a job as it was back then. I could completely understand her struggle with the different parts of herself, the nurse and the spy. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to feel that pull, wanting to do the best for your country and allies but feeling the pain caused by the horrors you had to necessarily inflict on others. Doing what is right is sometimes a choice between the lesser of evils, and that certainly doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

The author pulls you right into the story, starting with a prologue that describes Mata Hari’s death by firing squad. Each of these women is richly drawn, with some similarities between them but also some striking differences (as you might imagine). Interestingly, their paths crossed at times during the war. The descriptions of all that went on during this massive, war-to-end-all wars conflict (if only!) are completely captivating, keeping your interest (even if you know how it ends!). I absolutely adore that this author has chosen to honor the unsung female heroes (and a few bad girls) who helped shape history. It is fantastic that their stories are being shared in such a way. I find myself wondering what war and heroines this author will pick next. World War II, I imagine?

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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Northanger Abbey*

Beautiful Cover for a Gothic Classic

This is a new edition of Northanger Abbey that has been given a beautiful and colorful cartoon cover that I believe is meant to appeal to teenage girls. The text inside is Jane Austen’s original. Since Jane Austen’s writings are in the public domain, publishing houses can do things like this. In this case, I think this is a good idea because it would be awesome if Jane Austen could be discovered by the next generation. I myself found Jane Austen when I was around 13 or 14. Pride and Prejudice changed my life. I became interested in writing romances myself and wrote several as a teenager, and I have several ideas for my own Jane Austen-inspired fanfiction that I’ve written and one day hope to publish. I’ve also gotten to know amazing authors in the Jane Austen fanfiction universe, some of whom I consider friends. So I truly hope that young women discover Jane Austen through books like this one.

For those who don’t know, Northanger Abbey is the closest that Jane Austen came to writing gothic fiction. She still has her wonderful insight into the human condition and the state of society and manners at the time. But the gothic twist certainly adds a little fun to the story.

Culpa by Chloe Helton

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The Reign of Commodus, Told from his Sister’s Point of View

I enjoy reading historical fiction, but I will admit that I usually read historical romance. But it is fun to venture out into real historical fiction. I loved that this book is set in Rome just after the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I’m not usually able to read fiction that takes place in such a distant time. The book marks the beginning of the rule of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus. It is told from the perspective of the new emperor’s older sister, Lucilla. When the emperor was a boy, Lucilla helped raise him. How will it be for her to watch this young man, who has changed since he came back from battle, as he assumes the role of Emperor?

This is not the first book that I’ve read that retells history from the perspective of the women involved. I actually think it’s a great idea for writers because, of course, women were a part of history but are often ignored and even back then were often relegated to smaller roles. But that doesn’t mean that the thinking woman back then couldn’t impact her world and perhaps history, even if she’s not remembered for it. But I digress. For a book of historical fiction, this is written in a very easy style. Some books in this subgenre can be a bit stuffy and perhaps even hard to read. This is a smooth and easy read, and it is quite engaging to enter palace life in old Rome. They’re definitely secrets and intrigue. Lucilla has so much that she needs to accomplish, even if she has to pull the strings in the background and at personal peril. A great historical fiction read.

The Red Pearl by Chloe Helton

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The Red Pearl*

Turn for the Worse

I have read one other historical fiction book by this author which I liked immensely. I was not so fond of this book. Let me see if I can put it into words what I didn’t like. I guess I’ll start at the beginning. While this book’s blurb does not state it explicitly, a violent rape is at the core of this story. The author did say “assault” in the book description, but I think when something like this is in a story, the author really needs to put a trigger warning in the blurb because people who have suffered from something like rape most likely do not want to read a story where it is a fundamental, pivotal aspect. We not only see the rape itself but its aftermath as it ripples through the woman’s life. I honestly don’t think it was necessary for the story. The author could have made the heroine a patriot by nature (and in opposition with her neutral husband); she didn’t need to have this sort of impetus. I also didn’t like that it continued on throughout the entire story, the constant threat of the man (as the victim could not bring herself to tell her husband) and the woman’s constant fear.

Parts of the novel are definitely reminiscent of the AMC channel show “Turn,” which I absolutely adored. The heroine, Lucy, is married to a tavern owner, and much of the action of the story takes place in the tavern, The Red Pearl. I don’t like the way that life was portrayed for women in the colonies. I hope it wasn’t accurate. The heroine’s marriage was arranged for her, and her husband mostly sees her as a worker in his tavern whom he has sex with, not the way that we typically see marriage nowadays. The poor woman works really hard, when she’s not attending meetings with her patriot friends (see below), and still he complains—about her cooking, about how long it takes her to hang the laundry, and about how she doesn’t bring enough firewood at the end of the night. Hard to imagine such a marriage.

This is a relatively short book, and I don’t feel like the characters developed or there was enough action in the story. The most interesting action took place off-screen, so to speak.  So, much of the story is really just showing daily life in the tavern where Lucy is overhearing some Tory plots, which she then turns over to her brother who is in the military. He first doesn’t take her seriously, but mysteriously people act on her information. The book felt mostly just like a series of meetings, of the Tories in the tavern, Lucy with her military contact and former boyfriend, Lucy and her best friend, and Lucy and a group of patriot women. With so much inaction—just talk—I felt like the story just kind of fell flat. For that, and the pervasiveness of the rapist and Lucy’s constant terror of him, I cannot recommend the story.

Queen of Martyr by Samantha Wilcoxson

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Queen of Martyrs*

Ponderous Start, Odd Time Leaps

I enjoy books that take a fictionalized look at historical characters, so I thought I would enjoy this book. I didn’t know much about the main character beforehand. The author jumped forward a lot in time. Each chapter was months or years distant from the previous and the next. So it felt like the book was just these small vignettes that weren’t really related, so they were hard to pull together. It didn’t feel like a cohesive story. The beginning felt tedious, with all her physical complaints and not liking being at court. I did like the glimpse it gave into the young Elizabeth who became Elizabeth I as well as her aging father, Henry VIII. But the book just felt too disjointed for me to really get into the story and follow the narrative flow.

Falls Ende: Courser by Paul W. Feenstra

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Falls Ende: Courser*

Not Quite Sure What I Think About This Series Now

This is the second novella that I have read in this series, and I now find myself wondering if the author is making a mockery of medieval-inspired contemporary literature. Aspects of this book just didn’t ring wholly true for me as straight-up historical fiction. For one thing, in this book (and to a lesser extent the previous one) he has odd names for some characters. In this book, it was Master Mason Morel Mundy, and yes, he did always capitalize it like that. When referring to people by their job, he always capitalized it. The author also makes some odd word choices, causing me more than once to refer to my Kindle dictionary and the internet (which is kind of annoying in and of itself). Some words did not appear to be used correctly by definition or by culture; I wonder if the author is just using some of these words for effect.

Like the last book, there are some very long stretches of describing setting and other straight-up narrative prose, especially at the beginning of the book; you know an author has gone on too long if you’re tempted to just skip over large blocks of text. Some details were needed, but the author went overboard far too often. This slows down the action of the book. I thought there was too much head-hopping in the book; sometimes, the point-of-view character changed from paragraph to paragraph. Though really much isn’t said about it in the book blurb, much of this book is about Charlotte, Odo’s betrothed, and her plight; the book isn’t all about Odo, which seems to be implied by the book description. Her scenes alternated with the parts about Odo, who is showing himself to be much more than a simple herdsman. I actually quite enjoy historical fiction and so was looking forward to this series of novellas, especially as I had seen some good reviews, but I find myself disappointed because of the deficiencies above.

Falls Ende: The Oath by Paul W. Feenstra

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Falls Ende: The Oath*

Engaging Medieval Story

I love to read fiction set in the medieval era, and the author did a good job making this story feel authentic to those harsh and brutal times. The characters are well drawn, especially Odo. I could sense his frustration about being so low in the social pecking order as well as his occasional desperation about his plight. I thought the book fell victim to overlong narration. In fact, the entire first 10% of the book is all description of a hunt without a whisper of dialogue. I like to have my fiction more balanced between dialogue and narration. Some of the descriptions within the longer narrative sections are a bit long and too detailed, slowing down the forward motion of the story. That said, I did find the story arc interesting and engaging.

The Girl in the Painting by Renita D’Silva

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The Girl in the Painting*

Lyrically Written, but Tense is Annoying

This is my first time to read this author, and I am impressed with the way that she describes settings and emotions with such lyrical fluidity. This book is complex, with suspense that was kicked off in the very first section. The author seamlessly weaves between an early 20th-century past in India and present-day England. The story deals with loss, choices, and forgiveness, amongst other themes. The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is written in the present tense. I just find that a really awkward narrative tense to read; it jars me when I just want to be immersed in the story. The present tense sticks out like a sore thumb, beckoning me to acknowledge it when I just want the mechanics of language to fade into fade into the background. That said, I do appreciate this author’s poetic way with words; I just wish it was in the past tense!

Pagan Death by Sam Taw

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Pagan Death*

A Violent Look at Pagan Britain

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the level of violence that’s in this book, given the title. But I have to say that, nonetheless, I was surprised. The book starts off with a violent scene of human sacrifice. Fiction books about this time period are rare, so it intrigued me when I saw it on my favorite book review site. Unfortunately, at that site we only have the blurb to go on, so I wasn’t prepared for what this book actually was. I just found it to be too violent without much letup. In a story, there needs to be balance, and this story felt too dark. As one who has done some pagan studies, I also thought that the author showed a bias towards only showing the worst imaginings of what pre-Christian societies could be. Yes, it does make for more drama, but I don’t like the demonization of these ancient cultures.

The Specter by Tam May

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The Specter*

Intriguing Tale of Northern California in the 1800s

As someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I nearly laughed out loud at the first sentence in this book–and not in a good way! The author states that San Francisco hadn’t seen as damp a day like as was happening since the Civil War. As the novel takes place in the early 1890s, that would mean that San Francisco hadn’t seen such a damp day in nearly thirty years! Having been in San Francisco in all seasons, I can say that it can be very damp there quite often! These would be hard to quantify, and there certainly wouldn’t be thirty years in between damp days.

Once I got beyond that, I found parts of this book to show an interesting glimpse of Northern California in the Gilded Age as well as harkening back to the early days of the city and state around the time of California’s statehood. I find myself wondering at the accuracy of the history, especially the part referring to the 1850s, when San Francisco was still kind of a rough western city. True, not as rough as the little shanty towns that sprung up around state during the gold rush, but certainly nothing like the city as we think of it now (or even as it would have been in the 1890s. The term Gilded Age was really an accurate reflection of San Francisco at that time because of the wealth that many San Franciscans had because of the former gold rush as well as the Comstock silver rush. In a tiny little detail that I found odd, the author mentioned two prominent newspapers in the city during the 1890s, one of them the Chronicle and the other the Sun. I was surprised that the Examiner wasn’t mentioned, because that flagship newspaper became a part of Hearst corporation about ten years before the novel would have started–and a very young William Randolph was given it by his father five years before.

The novel is partly epistolary, with a large chunk of the second half of the book being letters that the heroine’s grandmother wrote back to her family when she stayed in an artist colony just north of the city as a young woman. These letters were fascinating, as they revealed a very different sort of existence for young women in the 1850s, but I wish they had been integrated into the greater story better. The letters were each just given their own chapter, with no commentary from the granddaughter, Vivian, who is the protagonist of the story. This made it feel like they were just stuck in there, as they weren’t really anchored to the rest of the story as much as they could have been. That said, I still did find this book to be an interesting look back into two very different and fascinating times of early California history.



The asterisks (*) by the book title denote the source of the book copy.

One star = I received it as a free advance/review copy or directly from the author.

Two stars = I borrowed it through my Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Three stars = I purchased the book outright (sometimes for free).

The Amazon book links on this site are affiliate links, which means I make a tiny percentage if you choose to buy a book linked from this site.

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