Real-life rise from poor to the palace has uneven ending

“The Shadow Queen” by Sandra Gulland. Doubleday, 2014. $25.95.

Set in 17th-century France, this book based on real-life events, manages to hit nearly every layer of the highly stratified medival society.

As the daughter of persecuted actors, Claude grows up a bone-poor vagabond, but through happenstance, hard work and crafty improvisation, rises all the way to Louis XIV’s gilded palaces. Gulland artfully crafts Claude’s rise, full of pitfalls, tensions and emotion, but the ending, while it satisfies the reader’s heart, may not satisfy the mind.

“The Shadow Queen” is a solid work of historical fiction tinged with romance that’s meticulously researched and only sacrifices fact for story in a handful of places.

— Beth Colvin, bcolvin@theadvocate.com

“American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. $28.

During a nearly 70-year career, Norman Rockwell illustrated for numerous magazines — including 323 covers for The Saturday Evening Post — and several organizations, such as the Boy Scouts. Rockwell’s illustrations told, without words, stories of a simple and iconic Americana life.

But Rockwell’s art did not reflect his own life. Solomon persuasively argues that Rockwell was a complex man who struggled with depression, loneliness, obsessiveness, hypochondria, and feelings of inadequacy. Though Solomon proves a staunch defender of Rockwell’s artistic talent, she also controversially surmises about Rockwell’s sexuality, injecting much of this opinion into her analyses of many of his illustrations.

Overall, though, Solomon provides an easy-to-read narrative of an accomplished artist who she believes deserves a significant and important place in the history of American art.

Laura Acosta, Baton Rouge

“The Unexpected Duchess” by Valerie Bowman. St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2014. $7.99.

When Lady Lucy Upton’s best friend Cassandra starts getting unwanted attention from the duke of Claringdon, Derek Hunt, Lucy does everything in her power to save her friend.

Using her wits and sharp tongue, Lucy tries to make it clear to the duke that Cassandra is not interested. Lord Derek Hunt is not so easily swayed, however, and a battle between two great minds ensues. He’s keeping a promise to a dying friend that he will court and marry Cassandra.

But Derek finds himself enjoying his battle of the minds with the beautiful Lady Lucy more and more, while Cassandra continues to pine over an unrequited love. Derek always keeps his word and will not break his promise, but Lady Lucy is becoming quite tempting.

Will he find himself in love with the wrong Lady?

This story was delightfully witty and entertaining. It was a fast-paced, one sitting read that was hard to put down. If you’re a fan of the historical romance genre, this is a must read.

The dialogue is quick and scintillating and makes it that much easier to fall in love with the characters. If you’re looking for an escape from the present, pick up this little gem and fall in love.

— Juliette Brandt, Baton Rouge