Month: February 2014

Renaissance & Alchemy in THE RED LILY CROWN by Elizabeth Loupas

Publisher: NAL Trade
Pages: 448
Release Date: April 1st
Genre: Historical Fiction
*Acquired copy through publisher for an honest review

April, 1574, Florence, Italy. Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici lies dying. The city is paralyzed with dread, for the next man to wear the red lily crown will be Prince Francesco: despotic, dangerous, and obsessed with alchemy.

Chiara Nerini, the troubled daughter of an anti-Medici bookseller, sets out to save her starving family by selling her dead father’s rare alchemical equipment to the prince. Instead she is trapped in his household—imprisoned and forcibly initiated as a virgin acolyte in Francesco’s quest for power and immortality. Undaunted, she seizes her chance to pursue undreamed-of power of her own.

Witness to sensuous intrigues and brutal murder plots, Chiara seeks a safe path through the labyrinth of Medici tyranny and deception. Beside her walks the prince’s mysterious English alchemist Ruanno, her friend and teacher, driven by his own dark goals. Can Chiara trust him to keep her secrets…even to love her…or will he prove to be her most treacherous enemy of all?

Praise: “Machiavelli meets The Brothers Grimm: a dark fairy tale with the addictive allure of a poison dream. Renaissance Florence springs to life in all its gorgeous, treacherous glory when a brave street urchin finds herself neck deep in Medici blood-lust. A dash of magic, a maze of murder, a heroine to root for, and a villain who needs to die–this is historical fiction at its most compelling.”— Author Kate Quinn

“Brings to life all the brutality, deception, and glamour of one of history’s most intoxicating eras. I could not put it down!”—C.W. Gortner

Cover: Pretty typical for the genre.

Review: Alchemy and the lust for immortality and power is the driving force behind THE RED LILY CROWN. The ‘Alchemist Prince’ was the working title for this novel and does much to describe the havoc and deceit that resulted from a prince obsessed with Alchemy. Chiara knows the same obsession is what ultimately killed her father. His death left their family with Alchemical instruments that prove valuable to the prince and his English advisor Ruan. The prince tears Chiara away from her home and forces her to practice Alchemy and live in the secluded apartments of the royal family. First with the Prince’s sister and then his wife, the Duchess of Austria. Loupas does a great job of painting the power struggles as play during this period. The struggle between siblings, between wife and mistress and between political agendas. Chiara embroils herself in all aspects and comes dangerously close to her own demise many times. It’s compelling to follow Chiara’s struggle to stay one step ahead of the Prince, as their working relationship evolves. Her character is the perfect balance of pragmatism and social grace that it takes to walk the delicate line between life and death. This novel needed all 448 pages to give us the full picture of the Prince’s rule and eventual downfall. That journey as a reader was heightened by the historical realities and the carefully nuanced characters within.

The author’s note at the end of the book sheds light on the truth behind the characters represented in the novel. There are still many mysteries surrounding the Prince and the unexplained deaths within his court during his reign. Loupas ran away with one of the many theories and created a unique and compelling interpretation that will satisfy history buffs and lovers of intrigue.

Overall: This third novel from Elizabeth Loupas was deftly researched and the characters and setting laid down beautifully on the page. Readers will find themselves easily transported.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

About the Author

Elizabeth Loupas lives near the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. She hates housework, cold weather, and wearing shoes. She loves animals, gardens, and popcorn. Not surprisingly she lives in a state of happy barefoot chaos with her husband (the Broadcasting Legend), her herb garden, her popcorn popper, and two beloved beagles.

http://www.elizabethloupas.com
@elizabethloupas

 

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DOLLFACE by Renee Rosen

Publisher: NAL Trade
Genre: Historical, Women’s Fiction
Pub Date: November 5th
Format: Paperback, Acquired from publisher

America in the 1920s was a country alive with the wild fun of jazz, speakeasies, and a new kind of woman—the flapper.

Vera Abramowitz is determined to leave her gritty childhood behind and live a more exciting life, one that her mother never dreamed of. Bobbing her hair and showing her knees, the lipsticked beauty dazzles, doing the Charleston in nightclubs and earning the nickname “Dollface.” 

As the ultimate flapper, Vera captures the attention of two high rollers, a handsome nightclub owner and a sexy gambler. On their arms, she gains entrée into a world filled with bootleg bourbon, wailing jazz, and money to burn.  She thinks her biggest problem is choosing between them until the truth comes out. Her two lovers are really mobsters from rival gangs during Chicago’s infamous Beer Wars, a battle Al Capone refuses to lose. 

The heady life she’s living is an illusion resting on a bedrock of crime and violence unlike anything the country has ever seen before. When the good times come to an end, Vera becomes entangled in everything from bootlegging to murder. And as men from both gangs fall around her, Vera must put together the pieces of her shattered life, as Chicago hurtles toward one of the most infamous days in its history, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Initial Thoughts: A story about the city I currently call home. The gangsters are notorious here but I like that Renee is trying to give a feminine angle to the traditional gangster story.

Review:  I am thankful to Renee Rosen for making this novel about the women. Stories about gangsters usually keep the women on the periphery as helpful and often times bumbling and superficial characters while the real men duke it out for domination. This is a love triangle set against the vibrant and seedy backdrop of depression era Chicago. As a reader you can tell that historical research was done for this book and done well enough that the sights and sounds of depression era Chicago really come to life. It is the  characters in front of that backdrop don’t have the same dramatic effect.

Vera Abramowitz is a single gal determined to be independent during an era when most are scraping to get by.  She has a job as a typist which pays just enough to keep her slaving away. One night out on the town with Evelyn at a speakeasy introduces Vera to two different male characters. The first part of the novel focuses on Vera’s two love affairs each with a tie to the local gangs. One for the south side (Al Capone) and the other for the north side gangs. Each man fulfills a different desire for Vera making it hard for her to choose one fate or the other. An unexpected pregnancy, leads her to choose marriage and a family with Shep Green of the north side gang.

 Vera’s girlfriends are all tied to the North Siders, though she tries and fails to make friends outside of Shep’s world. For a time, Shep and Vera exist comfortably without a care until the north side gang leader is gunned down by Capone and Shep is arrested in his attempt at retaliation. The once fiercely independent Vera is forced to survive on her own and without the money from the bootlegging, Vera realizes she must do something or be forced into poverty. That thing is bootlegging, a venture that eventually has her crossing paths with Tony again. Of course.

When Shep is finally released, her life spirals out of control.  As Vera races to save both of the men she loves, she finds she is powerless to stop the greater forces of hostility and the hunger for power that drove Chicago to become the gangster capital of the world.

Ultimately, this story lacked real bite. When it came to character development and the life and death stakes of being tied to a gang ,it was all watered down. Though Vera was on the outside of the gang, her character was at times annoyingly helpless while in other situations she was surprisingly resourceful. This contradiction bothered me. There was enough action to keep the novel flowing from chapter to chapter but the tension fell flat just as the novel was coming to its crescendo. Rosen worked to fit her storyline into the fabric of historical fact, and the turn of events at the end came off as melodramatic instead of tragic and heartbreaking. Though the emotion fell flat, the events and reality of life during that era rang true, so I would recommend it.

Overall: Historical buffs will be impressed by an authentic depiction of Chicago and its notorious gangsters. Lovers of women’s fiction will appreciate the wide range of female characters represented even though the main character Vera leaves a little to be desired.

Rating: 3.5/5

Quote: “Raid!” someone shouted. “It’s the feds! Raid! Everybody clear out!”

All at once people began hollering as they shoved past us, rushing towards the stairs. A dealer rammed into me, nearly knocking me over, while he and another barkeeper raced around, trying to get rid of any traces of liquor. I saw one of them pull a handle on the side of the bar and all the bottles on the shelves went whoosh and disappeared through a trapdoor. Two other men bolted past me, grabbed hold of the bar and flipped it upside down, making it look like an innocent hutch. Within seconds all the slot machines were spun around; their flip sides were disguised as bookcases.

“C’mon, we gotta get out of here.” Tony grabbed my hand and weaved me through the crowd, heading for the doorway. The alarm blasted again and again while everybody charged toward the staircase, knocking tables and chairs out of the way. I trampled over someone’s lost fedora and nearly tripped on an abandoned pocketbook.

“Wait!” I turned around, my heart pumping like mad. “Where’s Evelyn? Evelyn!”

“Who the hell’s Evelyn?”

“Evelyn. My roommate.”

“Forget Evelyn,” Tony shouted back, “unless you wanna see the inside of a paddy wagon.”

About the Author:

Along with DOLLFACE, Renée is also the author of EVERY CROOKED POT, a YA novel published by St. Martin’s Press.Renée has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Complete Woman, DAME, Publisher’s Weekly and a slew of now sadly defunct publications. She lives in Chicago where she is at work on a new novel also coming from Penguin/NAL in 2014.

Visit her at http://www.reneerosen.com
@ReneeRosen1

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