The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Hey, remember a year ago when I was pregnant with twins and so sick that I could barely read anything except Agatha Christie, and then I picked up Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel and I read it like I wasn’t even sick? And then even though I read it in January it was still in my brain enough that I included it in my ‘Best of’ list for 2012?

Yeah, so, her The Chalice lives up to the promise of its older sibling, The Crown.

This year when it came time to read The Chalice I was in the middle of a work-induced reading slump and then I started it and read the whole 500 or so pages in 24 hours. 24!

The Chalice has great pace with characters that are just as engaging as they were in The Crown. I love that Bilyeau has found somewhere new to go with the Tudor time period and I just love the way she writes historical thrillers, combining flawlessly the best parts of both genres. If you like history, pick up Bilyeau’s The Crown and have The Chalice erady to go to follow it up.

If you want to know more about The Chalice, here’s the publisher’s description:

In 1538, England’s bloody power struggle between crown and cross threatens to tear the country apart. Novice Joanna Stafford has tasted the wrath of the royal court, discovered what lies within the king’s torture rooms, and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic.

Even with all she has experienced, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Despite the possibilities of arrest and imprisonment, she becomes caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna realizes her role is more critical than she’d ever imagined. She must choose between those she loves most and assuming her part in a prophecy foretold by three seers. Repelled by violence, Joanna seizes a future with a man who loves her. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny.

To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with a corrupt spy sent by Spain. As she completes the puzzle in the dungeon of a twelfth-century Belgian fortress, Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lies at the center of these deadly prophecies. . . .

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The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper – Book Review

The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
Published by Simon & Schuster

Most of Professor David Ullman’s life has been dedicated to the story of Milton’s Paradise Lost. He central thesis is that Satan is the true hero of the work, along with demons. Of course he doesn’t believe in the veracity of demonology, this is the 21st century and he doesn’t even believe in God, let alone the Devil. But David’s disbelief is challenged after a strange person he refers to as the Thin Woman comes to his office one afternoon and requests that he come to Venice, Italy, because her employer needs for him to experience a phenomenon. As he and his wife are on the verge of divorce, David travels to Venice the next day with his twelve-year-old daughter, Tess. What happens while the two are in Venice will send David deep into study – and belief – of demonology with deeply personal consequences.

Ah, I loved this. Pyper has a way with words, and in The Demonologist he has created a beautiful and truly disturbing work of literary horror. David is very believable as a distressed father, as well as someone who has been melancholy and generally a little lost his entire life.  I also adored the Milton angle, that is what makes The Demonologist special (plus I’m just a sucker for academics and historians – other than Robert Langdon – tracking down monsters, a la The Historian).

This is a smart, slightly scary book and I really enjoyed it. Highly recommended

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The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Meyers – Book Review

The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Meyers
Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Only five years ago, Tia was desperately in love with a man she was sure loved her back. When Nathan found out about her pregnancy, however, he left her, imploring her to get rid of the baby. Unable to bear aborting Nathan’s child, but also unable to imagine herself as a competent mother, Tia settled on adoption. Now, when the latest set of pictures come in from her child’s adoptive parents, Tia cannot help by think of Nathan, and the fact that he knows nothing about their daughter. On a whim, she decides to copy the pictures and send them to Nathan, where they intercepted by his wife, Juliette.

Juliette had, somewhat, forgiven Nathan when he confessed his affair, but learning that he has a daughter is more than she can handle. Desperate to see this little girl who is part Nathan, Juliette searches her out, and finds her adoptive mother, Caroline. Caroline is just as – or perhaps even more – damaged as Tia and Juliette; she is a deeply introverted person who glories in her research-based career. Interacting with a young child is simply not natural for Caroline, and although she loves her family, she worries that she is constantly failing as a wife and mother.

By opening with Tia announcing her pregnancy and Nathan immediately leaving her, Meyers makes her story immediately engaging, while also providing the perfect set up for the novel as a whole. Everything that happens in The Comfort of Lies stems from this very moment, and Tia’s subsequent decisions to have her baby and give her up for adoption. I loved the way Meyers brings all three women together through one act of infidelity and one little girl. She does not pretend that things will be easy between these women, but writes interactions tinged both with real emotions and with grace.

The Comfort of Lies is a beautiful book about the things that tear us apart and how they can bring us back together. Recommended.

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The Italian Woman by Jean Plaidy – Book Review

The Italian Woman by Jean Plaidy
Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

From the publisher:

When Catherine de’ Medici was forced to marry Henry, Duke of Orleans, her heart was not the only one that was broken. Jeanne of Navarre once dreamed of marrying this same prince, but, like Catherine, she must comply with France’s political needs. And so both Catherine’s and Jeanne’s lives are set on unwanted paths, destined to cross in affairs of state, love, and faith, driving them to become deadly political rivals.

Years later Jeanne is happily married to the dashing but politically inept Antoine de Bourbon. But the widowed Catherine is now the ambitious mother of princes, and she will do anything to see her beloved second son, Henry, rule France. As civil war ravages the country and Jeanne fights for the Huguenot cause, Catherine advances along her unholy road, making enemies at every turn.

When I rekindled my love with historical fiction I started with Philippa Gregory – whose The Other Boleyn Girl was everywhere at the time – and quickly moved on to Jean Plaidy, a mega-star in her own right. Written beginning in the 1940s, Plaidy’s work can at times feel slightly dated; occasionally she bases parts of plots on facts that are now out of fashion and her style puts readers at more of a remove from the story than is currently popular. However, she remains a master of telling big, complicated stories. Not for Plaidy is the focus on a single character at the expense of the big picture. She shows what is happening from the perspectives of all of the major players, although unlike many modern novelists she does not feel constrained to attempt to give them equal time, but instead moves to them when their point of view would most inform her story.

The Italian Woman is Plaidy at her best. Although technically the second book in a trilogy, The Italian Woman stands alone absolutely perfectly. Enough context is given to the history that unless you knew that this was the second book in a trilogy, you would simply assume that this is the one portion of Catherine’s life that Plaidy has chosen to explore. And explore it she does. This is not simply Catherine’s life, but this period in the history of France’s ruling family. In fact, Jeanne of Navarre is nearly as prominent a character as Catherine, which is gratifying as she is often virtually ignored in favor of the flashy de Medici.

Historical fiction fans who have not yet experienced Jean Plaidy should certainly do so, and for those with any interest in Catherine de Medici, The Italian Woman is a great place to start.

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Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
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Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans – Book Review

Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Note: I have been friendly with Lenore Appelhans for some time in the book blogging community, but we have never been close, nor even consistent commenters on each other’s blogs. I received my copy of the book from the publisher, not from Appelhans, and this is my unvarnished opinion.

Felicia has been in Level 2 since her sudden death at the age of 18. Her days consist of little more than re-watching memories from her own life. Things are starting to change in Level 2, though. The girl in one of the neighboring chambers dies, but nobody seems to notice. In fact, nobody but Felicia remembers that she was even ever there. It is when Julian,  a boy from Felicia’s past, shows up, though, that things really start to get strange.  Felicia and Julian have a complicated history, and she isn’t exactly thrilled to see him, but she still agrees to go with him when he helps her escape from her hive and tries to enlist her in a rebellion.

Lenore Appelhans’s version of the afterlife is unlike any I have ever experienced: the hives, the memories that are replayed and used as currency. What is more familiar is the ongoing war between good and evil that does not end with death. There are some connections to Judeo-Christian traditions, but at the same time this is not a religious or preachy book in the least. What Level 2 is is an incredibly engaging book. I found myself reading so quickly that I almost felt that the pacing was off. It was me, though, and not the book; when I forced myself to slow down to a normal reading speed the pacing worked well, but if I did not pay attention I would find myself racing through the book at breakneck (breakeye?) speed because of how purely engaging the book is.

In Level 2, Appelhans creates a world and a mythology that is unlike any I’ve experienced before, but that is still believable and internally consistent and is the basis for an incredibly compelling story.

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Source: Publisher.
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