Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Summer Country by Lauren Willig


Publication Date: June 4, 2019

Length: 480 pages

I had such high hopes for this book. And there are many positives about it. The lush descriptions of Barbados and its plantations, the people, and the bustling city of Bridgetown in the 1800's.  I was excited because I am always looking for books that accurately portray life in the West Indies long ago and that include depictions of slave owners and slaves without being politically correct. The first few chapters I felt I'd finally found what I was looking for but as I continued it just seemed that many of the situations between the characters were a bit fantastical for the time and place.

It is entirely understandable. After all, it is a balancing act to write about plantation life in our modern times. People often don't want realism here but rather, rewritten history. I prefer truth. And this book just felt historical fiction that was way too heavy on the fiction. 

The style of the book was unique and different. Willig skips back and forth between two time periods, allowing short glimpses to unfold with a dash of mystery. Just about the time you think you are immersed in a character's life she switches back to the past or present. Some might be bothered by this but I found it kept suspense high and made me want to keep reading. 

The story revolves around Emily Dawson and her relationship to the Davenants who are owners of a neighboring plantation. Emily has inherited Peverills upon the death of her uncle and to the shock and surprise of her brother and family she has decided to try to stay and make something of it. Her life takes place during the mid-1800's and as the story switches back and forth in time we are privy to the life of Charles Davenant, living in the early part of the century and his struggle to run Peverills. There is a family mystery brewing throughout that involves deception, romance, and racial strife and Willig does a superb job of giving the reader just enough information to stay curious without giving away too much too quickly. She is a good writer and the dialogue and interactions between the characters is authentic.

Where it went off the rails for me was toward the middle to end of the book. It wasn't so much the mystery (that was quite interesting) but rather that if felt like she was trying too hard to make it a political commentary. While I understand that interracial relationships may have been different in the West Indies than say the Deep South in the United States it still felt like the characters were deliberately put into situations where they were either atoning for their sins or unrealistically modern in their reactions. It just felt a bit forced and took away from the excellent story and atmosphere she'd created at the beginning. 

I am always open to trying other books by an author to see if I feel differently with a different storyline. I have seen some solid reviews for her earlier work and plan to read one to see if I enjoy it. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Publication Date: September 15, 2020
Length: 400 pages

 I have to admit that reading historical fiction written by men has always been hit or miss for me. No disrespect to men....I love men! But sometimes their writing can lack all romance or personal touches beyond dates and battles. So the cover for this book is what really hooked me into trying it, shallow I know but I'm a sucker for all things Crusades and Richard the First.

This was a well written piece of historical fiction. The author plans to make this a three part series and I will definitely be reading the next two books. We open Lionheart with a fictional character named Rufus. This is not his real name but one given to him by his captors. Right away I liked the style of the book, written in first person and giving us a running glimpse into the character's thoughts. Rufus is an Irish boy who has been given as a hostage to the English after his father and kin rebelled against them. He is lonely and depressed and treated horribly by one of the knights at the castle where he is being held. Gradually, through a wild turn of events, Rufus becomes a trusted squire, and then eventually, knight of Richard the Lionheart.

This book spends a lot of time setting up the relationship between Rufus and the common squires around him and focusing on the struggles between Henry Plantagenet and his sons. Our main character is always there in the middle of battles and action, often through coincidental twists of fate that stretch the imagination a bit. I know some of the reviews I read took issue with this but with fiction I always give a lot of wiggle room to authors trying to let their readers in on as much of the history of the day as possible. After all, it is called historical fiction for a reason. 

After many years of service Rufus is eventually knighted and becomes a loyal follower of Richard. He is grateful and humbled to be given the opportunity to serve a man he greatly admires and respects. There is still a tension involving the original knight who beat him when he was newly arrived from Ireland (whom he calls Boots and Fists) and Rufus that has yet to be resolved. In the sequel I expect there to be more fireworks between these two. 

Lionheart does not follow Richard and Rufus to Outremer and the Crusades as that is the basis of Book 2. Rather it sets up the characters, real and imagined, and their personalities and qualities that make them unique to their place in history and the story. Major battles and skirmishes are told with plenty of detail but not so much that you lose interest or find it hard to follow. I greatly enjoyed the way the author gave us an inside view into how Henry is betrayed by his sons and how Richard manages to gain the trust and loyalty of his men. Kane does a good job of showing how Richard defends his rightful territories while adding personal touches that make us want to know what happens to these characters later.

If I had one negative about this book it would be that it could get a bit simplistic in its dialogue. I have reviewed books by Sharon Penman about this same time period and she is superb at the vocabulary and dialect that would be realistic for the time and place. I think Kane does well but does not have as good a grasp on this area of his writing and so I occasionally found myself thinking the characters sounded a bit twenty-first century. But this is minor and not so glaring that it detracts from the overall feel of the story.

If I want to read Book 2 in a series then it is a good sign that the first book was a job well done. I have already ordered Crusader and am excited to begin it soon. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about how Richard the Lionheart went from a seemingly minor third son of Henry the Second to master of Aquitaine and eventually King of England and Crusader.