In The Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Lawrence brings the world of London 1543 to dark life. It begins with the rats. Rats may have been more numerous than people in that era. As the story opens, someone is collecting the vermin for an unseemly purpose.
I chose to read this novel because the main character is similar in personality to Lucinda Martin York, the main character of my books Gold Rush Girl and Gold Rush Deluge. She’s an herbalist, she’s motherless, and she’s a strong female protagonist.
Bianca Goddard, the main character, lives a precarious existence, a 16th century equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck. She creates potions and salves to cure her customers of what ails them. One of her biggest customers runs a house of ill repute where Bianca’s best friend Jolyn was employed. Jolyn is engaged in a relationship with a well-to-do gentleman and is about to embark on a fairy tale life. The fairy tale is cut short when she dies suddenly in Bianca’s apartment. Due to the circumstances surrounding her death, Bianca becomes the prime suspect, and must solve the mystery of her friend’s death or face the gallows herself.
As the story unfolds, Bianca goes deeper into London’s underworld and discovers the secret of the rat collector. She’s accused of witchcraft, and ends up in a place no one would ever want to go. Once she escapes, she has to go back to that place again to prove her innocence and to prove what dark events are happening in the London shipyards.
This is a well-done mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. The language, customs, and events are all authentic to the time, proving the author did her research. Bianca Goddard stands out as a woman ahead of her era, pursuing herbal studies and a career, preferring to support herself rather than marry young. This novel is a perfect choice for readers who enjoy Tudor history and mysteries with a strong female protagonist.
Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Not many people know about the disastrous 1848-1849 winter trek of John C. Frémont and his men. Thirty-three men with one hundred thirty mules and plenty of supplies set out for California along the 38th parallel. Frémont brought along an expert topographer, a doctor, an artist, and many loyal men from his previous California campaigns. John C. Frémont was one of the premiere trailblazers of his time, yet through arrogance or poor judgement, or a little of both, he incurred devastating losses in this fateful journey.
The author develops the story through multiple viewpoints; that of John C. Frémont, Dr. Andrew Cathcart, Edward Kern, Bill Williams, and others. I especially enjoyed the chapters in the doctor’s point of view. All of these men lent a different slant to the story, but throughout it all, the reader is led to believe that Frémont had an oversized ego and a distance from human emotion and connection. Yet, he still managed to make him appear to care about his men and their condition.
The story begins with the team heading westward across the mountains in good cheer and good health. Bill Williams, the guide, tells Frémont the route along the 38th parallel is too dangerous, but Frémont doesn’t listen and instead pushes forward. Later, as the mental acuity of the guide begins to wane, they find themselves boxed into an impassable area buried deep under snow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, fighting to keep themselves alive. By the time Frémont understands that Bill Williams is lost, he has one option. He leaves most of his men behind in small camps and goes to New Mexico for relief. The story of the relief efforts is heartrending.
This biographical novel is engaging and thoroughly researched. Snowbound was my introduction to the author Richard S. Wheeler, and I’m quite happy to have discovered his book. I’ll be looking for more books by this author.
Just one look at the cover of this book will give you an idea of the complexity and complications faced by the 19th century Arctic explorers. In this engrossing tale of the search for Franklin and his lost expedition, Andrea Barrett brings to the page the hidden motivations and desires that accompanied these men on their ships.
On the other hand, we get to know the women standing watch patiently at home waiting for the explorers to return safely. Andrea Barrett breathes life into these characters through her literary prose and her incredible knowledge of the era.
Erasmus Welles sets off in early summer on board the Narwhal with Ezekiel Vorhees, his friend and soon to be brother-in-law. When Ezekiel begins making unconscionable demands of the officers and crew, and goes deeper into his own personal quest, Erasmus is torn between his instinct for survival and the consequences of that survival.
The power of the ice, and the unrelenting landscape and seascape join forces to test the men beyond human limits. The Esquimaux come to their aid, but consider the explorers inferior and helpless. What Ezekiel brings back from his journeys is as cruel and shocking as can be imagined.
This book is a satisfying mix of historical fact, character development, and human psychology. The author leaves many questions unanswered, open to the interpretation of the reader. This is a serious work of fiction, a fulfilling tale of adventure and acrimony.
I love being in a book club at the local library. We read books together that I might never hear about or discover without them. The February 2015 selection was The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout.
The writing is as sparse and cold as the Nebraska countryside in which the story takes place. This served to make the story even more real to me, as I read of personal tragedy and personal triumph. Swarthout’s writing style is reminiscent of Hemingway, whom the author reportedly admired.
From the very first chapter, surprises happen. I’m always in awe of the strength and stamina of our pioneer forefathers, one reason I like to write about the 1800s. Yet we seldom hear about the people who didn’t have the psychological strength to survive those harsh conditions. This story tells the tale of women who lost their mental grounding and needed to be escorted back east to their relatives or to a sanitarium.
The main character, Mary Bee Cuddy, volunteers to take the women home across the plains in the dead of winter. A degenerate criminal named Briggs joins her, not because he wants to, but because she saves him from a bizarre sort of hanging. Plus, she offers him $300 to be paid upon the safe delivery of the women. Mary leaves her homestead in the care of a neighbor, a risky gamble at best. With every move they make along the journey back home, the plot twists in unexpected ways. At one point, I was so shocked by a character’s actions that I wanted to give up the book. However, I read on to the end, and was delighted with the denouement.
After reading the book, I watched the movie. Tommy Lee Jones is the perfectly cast in his role as Briggs, as is Hilary Swank as Mary Bee. They truly bring the story to life. Here’s a trailer of the movie.
Glendon Swarthout was a prolific writer in several genres. The historical accuracy and plain good writing make this book one to add to the shelf of anyone who loves Western American Historical Fiction.