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Archive for the ‘Gail's Picks’ Category

flickerDo you want your picture taken? Grab a digital camera and you’ll have it in an instant. But just a mere one hundred years ago, a photograph was a treasured object. Having your picture taken meant a trip to the photographer’s studio and spending considerable money. Today’s story is about a portrait photographer, his studio and his assistant in Winona, Minnesota in 1907.

The Flickering Light tells the story of Jessie Ann Gaebele, a 15-year old girl who has received a camera as a gift. Photography has captured her interest and she is keen to learn more. Jessie is also a strong-willed girl from a family with little money. So she and a friend apply for a job with Mr. Frederick John Bauer, portrait photographer.

Mr. Bauer, known as FJ, has operated a successful studio for many years. His wife, also named Jessie, is familiar with the photography business so that FJ would like her to help in the studio. But she is busy with their three children and she also fears the chemicals used in developing. In fact, the chemicals have caused a problem: FJ has acquired mercury poisoning, common in his business. On occasion the poison flares up and he is bed-ridden, unable to work. This is the reason that he is in need of an assistant.

Jessie and her friend are hired and trained to run the studio. Jessie loves every minute of the training and work. But another “love” enters the studio: FJ has become smitten with Jessie, and she is with him to some degree. Although Jessie is young, she see the dangers that this presents, especially when they are working alone in the studio.

I don’t want to give away the story, but do know that the book is a light, clean read. It’s a good story and even better when one realizes that it is a fictionalized account of the life of the author’s grandmother. What I found most interesting was the story of this young woman, 100 years ago, and her ability to find a profession and work it it although society frowned upon such activity for her sex. I also enjoyed hearing about photography and the style of it 100 years ago. There are great pictures in the book, all taken by Jessie herself.

This is the first book in the new Portrait of a Woman series. Jane Kirkpatrick has written many other popular books. We have 10 of her other books and we will undoubtedly get other books in this series as they come out.

Check the WRL catalog for The Flickering Light

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coatThis is a good, rousing tale of sailing life in 1780. You will learn much about ships and how they work as well as battles of the time and the weapons used. Our “hero,” (and we use the word loosely) is a wild young fellow who suddenly finds himself in a new world. Think Horatio Hornblower, but as a spoiled, brash fellow whose relationships with women often complicate his life.

Alan Lewrie, born the illegitimate child of Sir Hugo Willoughby in England, is 17 years old. He has made use of his father’s money, living a high life. One day he is found in a very improper situation with his half-sister. To be rid of the young rake – and to control his inheritance – Alan’s father buys him a commission as a Midshipman and  forces him to join the Royal Navy. Alan is soon climbing on board the 64-gun Ariadne. He must either adapt to the life of a sailor, or he will fulfill his father’s wish – to never return.

You can almost feel the ship rocking and hear it creaking as Alan learns his way around the 18th century sailing vessel. For some, the details of the sails and the ropes and holds will be a delight; for others of us, we can absorb what we want  and let the rest go. Along with the description of the ship, there are several battle scenes covered in great detail. It’s very exciting – and very real. Alan makes some enemies and some friends, all the while growing and taking on responsibility for the ship and the lives of the other men. But he’s not quite Horatio Hornblower – Alan still has a bit of the rake in him so that we’re never quite sure what he will do.

Some warning about the style of the book is required. The life of a sailor was very harsh and the way Alan lived his life was hard and fast. Some of the language and some of the scenes are graphic and  bawdy. For those interested in a “cozy read” – you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Mr. Lambdin has continued the story of Alan Lewrie in 15 books. Check out any of these at WRL.

Check the WRL catalog for The King’s Coat

Check the catalog for the Alan Lewrie series

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kingdomThis is a fairly new series for Bernard Cornwell, who is already well-known for his 21-book Richard Sharpe series. Cornwell continues his great story-telling style but in a different time and place. Now we are in the year 866, on the northeast border of England, or Englaland as it was once called.

The Last Kingdom, the first book in the series, is the very exciting story of ten-year old Uhtred. As the book begins, Uhtred lives with his father, Earl Uhtred, and his brother at a place called Bebbanburg in Northumbria. Uhtred is learning to live the life of a nobleman’s son. But his life changes when Danish ships are spotted offshore. The Danes want the English land and fight hard for it.  In the very first battle, young Uhtred is captured by the Danish leader, Earl Ragnar, aka Ragnar the Fearless.

Uhtred spends the next few years with the Danes under the care of Earl Ragnar. He enjoys this time and learns much about Danish culture and religion (they follow the pagan ways, not the Christianity of his people). He also learns the fierce fighting style of the Danes which, combined with his own bravery, makes him a strong fighter. But Uhtred’s English roots still call to him, and with a few fateful events,  he finds himself once again allied with his mother country. His life becomes entwined with that of the future King Alfred, who is trying to keep the Vikings from overtaking England. The story of Uhtred – and King Alfred – continues following the true history of England.

Initially I listened to this as an audio book. It was enjoyable to hear the unusual names spoken and the excitement of the battle scenes. I also picked up the book and read parts of it – and can highly recommend it. As always, Mr. Cornwell has done his research so that the history is accurate, and  incorporates it into the story to make it fun and interesting. English and Danish customs,  agriculture, religion, home crafts, women’s roles, political dealings, ships travel, and Alfred’s history are all part of the story. Fighting is also a prominent element. Based on the battles that took place, one learns about the weapons, the battle style, the strategies, the horrors. (This is one area in which I grew a bit weary as the brutality overwhelmed me at times.)

Uhtred’s story as well as King Alfred’s and the history of England continue in the next book, The Pale Horseman.  There are four in the series currently but more to come.

Check the WRL catalog for The Last Kingdom

Check the WRL catalog for the Saxon Stories series

For those interested in seeing the recent discovery of gold jewelry and adornments, check out   http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk. More than 1500 items were found dating from the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia.

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medicusHere is another story about the great Roman Empire interwoven with a murder mystery.  This is a fun, light read – and very enjoyable.

The year is 117 A.D., and expansionist Rome is dispatching the Army to the far reaches of its empire.  And so Gaius Petreius Ruso, a doctor with the 20th Legion, finds himself in Deva, England (near current-day Liverpool). Ruso is here to leave behind some painful memories: his father died recently, and his wife has left him. As the story opens, he is wondering about the wisdom of his move, he’s trying to decode the politics of his new job, and he’s dealing with the body of a young woman fished out of the river.

On his way to the baths, he hears a commotion in the streets. A slave owner is abusing his property, a young woman who is also a native Briton. She is unconscious and has a badly broken arm. Ruso tries to stay out of the ruckus but eventually becomes involved, as we hope he will. Many more places and characters enter the story – such as the local bar owned by a woman named Merula – before Ruso is able to figure out why women are disappearing. While these events are unfolding, Ruso is also trying to heal – and help – his newly acquired slave.

The book opens with much excitement and grabs the reader from the start. It continues at a good pace. The history is interwoven in the story very nicely and one learns about the culture and the life of the people – both the local Britons and the invading army. We hear details of  the town, the food, the baths, writing tablets, medical procedures, and everyday life. And then there’s Ruso – a very likable character down on his luck, in a new town, and struggling with his job.

Ruth Downie has a winner in Gaius Petreius Ruso. The stories are fun, light, entertaining and historical. She has continued his story with two other books:  Terra Incognita and then Persona Non Grata.

Check the WRL catalog for Medicus

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spqrSPQR I: The King’s Gambit is an entertaining combination of murder mystery and light history lesson which takes us back to 44 B.C., to the bustling and powerful city of Rome.  The protagonist is Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger. As Head of the Commission of Twenty Six, his job is to solve the murders in his district of Rome – a particularly rough neighborhood called the Subura. His father, Decius Caecilius Mettellus the Elder, is an Urban Praetor (or high officeholder) who laments that the Younger does not honor his  family, and prefers  “low company and disreputable pursuits.”  Thoroughly enjoying his detective work, Decius ignores his father’s comments and maintains his position.

The story opens with the murder of a former gladiator named Marcus Ager. While investigating his death, Decius is summoned to a Senate chamber to hear that other events have taken place the same night. A warehouse has burned down and its owner, Paramedes – an Asian Greek from Antioch and a resident of the Subura district – has been stabbed to death. When Decius states that this is a matter for international police (so to speak) he is told that he, Decius, will work on the case – and will keep a low profile while doing so.  The plot becomes more complicated and delicate as people of high rank and office are drawn into the mystery.

As with all good historical fiction, we learn a lot about the era, the people, the politics and the local customs. There are descriptions of the life of a gladiator, political posturing, the famous reclining dinner parties, and the very complicated social ranking of the times.  The historical commentary is nicely woven into the story, although there were a few times when it was a bit obvious.  Famous political figures – Caius Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus – become part of the story and we learn more of their actual histories as well.

Initially I listened to this book on CD, which allowed me to hear the strange and unusual words spoken, and gave the story an added intrigue. The disadvantage – which I realized when I picked up the book – is that I missed some of the details. The difficult names – and the political dealings – can make the story tricky to follow in audio version.

The first book in the series – SPQR – came out in 1989.  John Maddox Roberts has continued to write about Decius Caecilius Metellus and recently published  SPQR XII:  Oracle of the Dead (2008).  Check out all 12 volumes at WRL.

Check the WRL Catalog for SPQR: The King’s Gambit

Check the WRL Catalog for the SPQR series

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