The party continues with a list that’s not so random – my recent reads about colonial, revolutionary and post-war/frontier America. I’d been hoarding most of these for years, but finally got inspired by — wait for it — Jude Devereux’s The Raider.
Most are from inspie publishers, who seem to be the only ones interested in non-Brit settings. Maybe someday Harlequin will discover early America. I would GLOM THAT SO HARD. That sounds vaguely dirty, but you know what I mean.
All the family pics are from a trip to Washington D.C., in 2008 to visit my little sis, who had an actual job actually schmoozing actual politicians. She likes that sort of thing (*~*shudder*~*).
Things 1&2 were eight and five. We spent July 4th at Mount Vernon, where it was approximately 157 degrees, with mosquitoes the size of bats and restroom lines nine miles long. It sounded like a good idea at the time.
The colonial era
The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
The story of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallet, a founder of Greenwich, Connecticut, and ancestor of Howard Dean, John Kerry, Amelia Earhart, Bill Gates and Johnny Depp. No, seriously. Not quite as good as Seton’s Katherine, but definitely a must-read. There’s some info-dumping when the narrative skips ahead a few months or years, but the heroine’s struggles with her Puritan community and the harshness of the early settlements are incredibly vivid and memorable. Grade: A- (HMH, 1958; purchased (I own all of Seton in paper, ebook and audio))
A Bride Most Begrudging by Deeanne Gist
Gist is an auto-buy for me, and her first novel is one of my favorites. The bride is a headstrong earl’s daughter who travels on a ship to America that’s also carrying a cargo of indentured servants. As you can guess from the title, there’s a Really Big Misunderstanding and she winds up in a marriage of convenience to a cranky farmer. Lots of drama and action, and a slow-building enemies-to-lovers romance. Grade: B+ (Bethany House, 2005; purchased/audio from library)
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
I mentioned this in an audiobook roundup a while ago, and I’m still kind of bitter about it because Brooks’ People of the Book is on my DIK list. The blurb is pretty misleading — the story focuses not on Caleb, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, but on the daughter of his tutor. I think I would have like it better as a traditional read, because the audio narration by Jennifer Ehle was really disappointing. Grade: C- (Viking, 2011; library)
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Thing1 made me read this when she read it in school. It’s a middle-grade classic and Newbery winner, and it’s fantastic. Grade: A (HMH, 1958; purchased)
Love’s Pursuit by Siri Mitchell
My status update after finishing: “This was a difficult book — one of the most frustrating reads I’ve had in a long time.” I wanted to love this book, but it just didn’t work – I couldn’t root for any of the characters, and the audio narration was just dreary. If you’re looking for a story about life and love among the Puritans, stick to Seton, but be sure to try some of Mitchell’s more recent books. Grade: C-/D+ (Bethany House, 2009; purchased/audio from library)
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown
This is based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive with her children by a native raiding party. I only made it three chapters because (a) it’s first-person POV (for no reason other than lit-ficcy pretentiousness); and (b) the gruesome scene of the attack on the village. I’m all for realism and accuracy about the violence of early America, but the author could have accomplished that without describing babies being scalped in ghastly detail. Grade: DNF (NAL, 2014; Edelweiss)
The Revolutionary War
Renegades of the American Revolution series by Donna Thorland
(The Turncoat, The Rebel Pirate, Mistress Firebrand)
Look no further for Kick-Ass Heroines (note the capitalization). There some men in there somewhere, but this series is all about the women. All three are really good, but a caveat — if you’re not familiar with all the military and political players of the Revolution (on both sides), you might feel a bit lost because these books are so fast-paced there no room for backstory. Grade: B (NAL, 2013-2015; library, NetGalley, Edelweiss)
Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow
A young dressmaker in Charleston, South Carolina, discovers her talents as a spy for General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion. I love this book. Like Seton, Bristow is a brilliant storyteller, and the southern setting makes it unique and well worth reading. Grade: A- (Thomas Crowell, 1959; purchased)
Time Enough for Drums and Cast Two Shadows by Ann Rinaldi
More middle-grade classics I should have read long before this. Drums is northern, Shadows is southern, both tell the story of teens dealing with the imposition of war in their quiet communities. I have the rest of Rinaldi’s backlist on my library wishlist. Grade: A for both (Holiday House, 1986, and Harcourt Brace, 1998; purchased)
Daughter of Liberty by J.M. Hochstetler
This is was an impulse buy right after I got my first Kindle, and I’ve read it four times. The American heroine’s secret identity as super-spy “The Oriole” is threatened when her Loyalist father introduces her to a charismatic British dragoon officer. As another reviewer said on Goodreads, the tension and suspense in this book is nearly unbearable, and the Total Drama climax is brilliant. It’s the first of a four-book series and ends on a cliffhanger; I have all three sequels but haven’t read them yet because Book Anxiety. Grade: A (Zondervan, 2004; purchased)
A Catch of Consequence by Diana Norman
A big change of pace from Norman, aka medieval mystery writer Ariana Franklin. Tough-talking but secretly vulnerable Makepeace Hedley depends on the custom of the Sons of Liberty who frequent her Boston seafront tavern, and she puts her future in jeopardy when she saves a lordly British officer from drowning. The plot and tone change abruptly when the the mesallianced (yes, that’s a word, shut up) couple escape the mob to London, where the lord’s Evil Ex looms ominously. This is the first of an epic saga trilogy, and I am at war with myself (metaphor!) over buying the ebooks too. Grade: B (HarperCollins, 2002; purchased)
Rebellious Heart by Jody Hedlund
Hedlund is another go-to inspie author, and this is why. It’s another “naive girl gets thrown into the world of spies” story, but Hedlund does the “show, don’t tell” thing really well, giving us a fascinating pre-war (1763) espionage story and a great romance. Jayne at Dear Author wrote a great review of it. Grade: A (Bethany House, 2013)
The Messenger by Siri Mitchell
A much better effort from Mitchell, despite a very abrupt ending. The heroine is compelled to smuggle messages and supplies to her imprisoned brother in defiance of her Quaker family and congregation’s stricture against getting involved in the war. I loved the detailed Philadelphia setting, the relationship- and romance-building are beautifully done, and the heroine’s struggle with religious doctrine vs. faith and conscience is heart-wrenching. I highly recommend the audiobook. Grade: B+ (Bethany House, 2012; purchase/audio from library).
The Midwife’s Revolt by Jodi Daynard
This title was first self-pubbed, and then picked up by Amazon’s Lake Union imprint; I did audio. Lizzie is a young widow who lost her husband of six months at Bunker Hill. Her reputation as a skilled midwife and healer puts her in the path of a conspiracy plot against her neighbor and close friend Abigail Adams. Grade: B- (Lake Union, 2015; NetGalley and purchased audiobook )
Warning: Book Rant. I’m still bitter about this one too — what a waste of a gorgeous cover. What could be more compelling than the story of Spoiled Philadelphia Belle Peggy Shippen, Suave Super-Spy John Andre and the infamous Benedict Arnold? All that inherent dramatic tension! Not in this book.
My status update 15%: “Pacing…is…very…slow…and the writing is devoid of any emotion whatsoever.” The biggest drawback is the POV from Peggy’s young maid — it’s all outsider perspective with a lot of telling instead of showing. The entire first half is endless episodes of “Peggy has a tantrum and then the servants dissect it afterwards.” After one or two fit-pitching scenes, we don’t need to be told again and again that Peggy is a shameless, selfish coquette.
AND THEN. This is the really ranty part. The scene: General Benedict Arnold receives an unexpected delivery from the Suave Super-Spy:
Peggy then reached back into the brown package and retrieved two items. The first was another letter on a flimsy piece of parchment.
“What does it say?”
“Nothing, it would seem,” Peggy answered her husband. “It’s a series of numbers—entirely devoid of meaning.”
“Curious.” Arnold creased his brow. “And what’s that?” Arnold pointed at the second item retrieved from the package, which had the appearance of a thick book.
“He sent us a book?” Arnold asked, taking the mug of ale from Clara.
“It seems to be a dictionary,” Peggy answered, thumbing through the heavily bound volume.
“Why would he send us a dictionary?” Peggy’s face went sour, and she shook her head at the ale Clara offered her.
“Is this André fellow insulting me?” Arnold sat upright, indignant.
“What could he possibly mean, sending us a dictionary?” Peggy still studied the book, puzzled.
“He seems to imply, Mrs. Arnold”—Arnold’s voice was forceful now, as it became when he demanded the respect he felt was so often denied him—“that we simple colonials cannot write in a manner worthy of your stylish British spy!”
And later that night in the kitchen:
“Sir, this is no ordinary dictionary.” Clara picked up the book, realizing for the first time the power held within its pages, should her suspicions prove correct. Oh how she wished now that she had burned the thing! But it was too late—Arnold’s interest had been aroused.
“Whatever can you mean, you strange girl?” Arnold looked from Clara to the dictionary with eyes wide and probing.
“You see, this dictionary is accompanied by this.” Clara picked up the small piece of paper.
“That is just a bunch of nonsense”—Arnold scowled—“a series of numbers.”
“It’s far from nonsense. It’s a code,” Clara corrected him. “The key to reading the message is hidden within this dictionary.”
“How does it work?” Arnold asked, taking a seat at the table.
We are supposed to believe that GENERAL BENEDICT ARNOLD, a lifelong officer, hero of Saratoga and renowned military tactician, DOES NOT KNOW WHAT A BOOK CIPHER IS AND NEEDS A MAID TO EXPLAIN IT TO HIM.
I finished the audiobook because I paid for it, dammit (on sale and with a coupon, but still), but the WTF still burns. Grade: D (Howard Books, 2014; Edelweiss, purchased audio)
The post-war/frontier era
The Frontiersman’s Daughter, Courting Morrow Little, The Colonel’s Lady, and the Ballantyne Legacy series by Laura Frantz
Another years-long book hoard. All these titles are set in the wilderness of the Kentucky/Ohio frontier in the late 1700s. The heroines – all orphaned or motherless – deal with bad transporation, worse weather, lustful men and enigmatic Indians. The storytelling is good, but after reading all six in a row, there was a bit a sameness to them. I’d pick Courting Morrow Little as my favorite, a B for the that one; the others are B-/C+ range. (Revell, 2009-2014; purchased/library)
The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss
This is not a romance, but it’s a great historical read. Ethan Saunders, once a trusted spy for Washington, is now a disgraced and bitter drunkard. His only hold on life is his love for his former fiancee, and when she’s threatened by her husband’s accomplices in a financial scheme, Ethan finally gets his shit together and winds up schmoozing with Alexander Hamilton. On the other side, we have Joan Maycott, a widowed distillery owner who’s determined to ruin Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, and with it the entire national economy, to avenge her husband’s murder at the hands of a corrupt tax agent. The plot is complicated, especially the bits about the financial scheming, but the suspense is tight and the secondary cast is marvelous. Grade: B+ (Random House, 2008; library)
The books of actual history
Some of my favorite non-fic books about the era…..
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis
- 1776 by David McCullough
- John Adams by David McCullough
- Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
- The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto
- America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 by Richard Brookhiser
- Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick