Saturday, October 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Chivalry and the Medieval Past edited by Katie Stevenson and Barbara Gribling

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I love medieval history. While I mainly stick to biography and straightforward narrative history of particular events or time periods, every once in a while I like to wade through the weeds of more academic history.

Chivalry and the Medieval Past, edited by Katie Stevenson and Barbara Gribling, is a multi-author collection of essays examining how chivalry is and has been interpreted and how those interpretations influence visions of medieval culture. It seems that as soon as the Middle Ages ended, people were already looking back at it with either nostalgia or disdain. The militarism inherent in the word "chivalry" was either romanticized as a manly virtue or criticized as barbaric.

The contents of the book are as follows:

Introduction: Chivalry and the Medieval Past - Katie Stevenson and Barbara Gribling
'An Institution Quite Misunderstood': Chivalry and Sentimentalism in the Late Scottish Enlightenment
- David W. Allan
Creating a 'Medieval Past' for the Swedish Orders of Knighthood - Antti Matikkala
'Hung Round with the Helmets, Breast-Plates, and Swords of our Ancestors': Allusions to Chivalry in Eighteenth-Century Gothicism - Peter N. Lindfield
Knights on the Town? Commercial and Civic Chivalry in Victorian Manchester - Rosemary A. Mitchell
'The Dark Side of Chivalry': Victory, Violence and the Victorians - Barbara Gribling
Daze and Knights: Anachronism, Duelling and the Chivalric Ethic in Nineteenth-Century Italy - Steven C. Hughes
The German Crusade: The Battles of Tannenberg, 1410 and 1914 - Stefan Goebel
'Hark ye back to the age of valour': Re-enacting Chivalry from the Eglinton Tournament to Kill Streak - Paul Pickering

While not every topic will appeal to every reader interested in medieval studies, nevertheless I recommend reading them all, since you might be surprised by which essay ends up grabbing you.

There is something interesting to find in each of the chapters, which cover topics ranging from the construction of a medieval past to lend legitimacy to newly established orders of knighthood in Sweden, to the pros and cons of Gothic architecture versus classical architecture in England, to the widespread popularity of historical re-enactment with its claims of increasing historical knowledge, not just providing entertainment. And while the analyses can be ponderous at times, the individual essays were varied enough to create a very readable whole. For those interested in an exploration of how perceptions of the middle ages are always evolving, this book is worth a look.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh

I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve enjoyed Mary Balogh’s historical romances in the past and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read her new novel: Someone to Love.

In this sweet romance, the heroine, Anna Snow, has been raised in an orphanage in Bath. At twenty-five, she is now a teacher in the orphanage’s school. She’s made a life for herself filled with purpose and good friends, yet something is missing. Anna is unaware of her true identity and has no family connections.

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, is an atypical hero. Unlike the usual large alpha male, Avery is short and lithe. Nevertheless, despite his affectation of constant boredom (an affectation demanded by the ton), he exudes power and danger. Bullied as a child, he serendipitously discovered martial arts. His body is now a lethal weapon, something only he needs to know for his confidence to shine through.

The story begins with the death of the Earl of Riverdale. His son and heir, Harry, is not quite of age and so is under the guardianship of Avery Archer. Everything is going smoothly, until the old earl’s solicitor discovers the existence of a prior claim. The earl had a daughter by his first wife, a secret marriage, and remarried before his first wife died. The children by his second wife, Harry and his sisters, are illegitimate and so disinherited. His legitimate daughter is Anna Snow.

Anna’s strength, independence, and dignity carry her through the terrifying experience of meeting a family who are appalled by her existence and ashamed of her lowly upbringing. She impresses the un-impressible Duke of Netherby. Although at first she doesn’t know what to make of him, Anna comes to appreciate the real man behind the falsely indifferent, impenetrable front.

The relationship develops in a calm, pleasant way, with mature, well-behaved protagonists. They are comfortable with who they are and they should be. They work together to meet the challenges facing them. Avery and Anna belong together and it makes for pleasant reading as they glide into marriage and the post-honeymoon period. I’ll keep Mary Balogh in mind when I’m looking for Regency Romance.

Monday, October 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I was not a big fan of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and I really hated Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I keep trying though, and so, for my Back-to-the-Classics challenge "book with the name of a place in the title" I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. So far, I’d have to give the nod to Anne.

The book is constructed in a rather gimmicky way. It combines letters and a diary, which should give it a boost since I ordinarily love epistolary novels. However, in this case, the artificiality of the style is too striking. Even in the heyday of communication by letters, I can’t see anyone writing letters like these. (The male hero writes a letter to a friend recounting the arrival in his town of a mysterious woman with whom he falls in love. In order to fully explain the mystery, he passes on a diary given to him by the woman.) The diary doesn’t read like a real diary any more than the letters read like letters. The female narrator records the events of only red letter days, and years pass with only rare summary entries. It spares the reader the dullness of day-to-day life and it works as narration, but not as a diary.

Nevertheless, structural issues aside, the novel is a compelling story of a woman who makes a terrible mistake at a young age, falling in love with a charmer and insisting on marrying him despite the counsel of friends and family. He’s a drunkard, a womanizer, and a bully. Once he has her away from her supports, he verbally abuses her and takes a mistress in front of her. He goes on drunken debauches and insults her in front of his friends, most of whom are little better than he is–though they improve with time as they realize what an appalling creature he is.

The woman, Helen, is a gentlewoman with a small inheritance who is being brought up by her aunt and uncle when she makes her disastrous choice. A deep religious conviction sustains her through her trials, but also leads her to believe that, as a wife, she must support her husband and live with the consequences. She suffers a great deal, but sees no option for escape. It’s a horrible commentary on nineteenth century oppression of women.

Things change after the birth of her son. Rather than reining in the wicked father, Helen watches as he does everything possible to corrupt the child. Helen has had enough. She escapes to a tumbled down old house owned by her half-brother who is willing to hide and shelter her. Her identity and whereabouts must be kept secret because her husband is completely within his rights to demand back the child out of spite.

Helen is impressively strong. The young squire who falls in love with her at Wildfell Hall matures into a worthy husband for her, though at the beginning he’s a vain and shallow fellow. And the eventual outcome is satisfying. The main characters are a bit too black-and-white with one pure goodness and one pure evil, but it’s an interesting character study none the less, and a realistic picture of an alcoholic death.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers has been on my Netgalley queue for months. It isn’t due out until January 2017, but seeing as it’s an epistolary novel, an art form I admire, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer.

The title character is Placidia Fincher, daughter of a respected Southern gentleman farmer, who is rather abruptly wed to Major Gryffth Hockaday. Hockaday is an officer in the Confederate army who has recently lost his wife and has an infant son at home. Placidia is a seventeen-year-old beauty, immediately captivated by the Major. He’s on leave at the time of their meeting. They have only one full day and two nights together as husband and wife before he is commanded back to the field.

Placidia is left in charge of a farm that is on the verge of failing. There are a few "servants" still in place, and Placidia is uncomfortable as mistress of a household where she is a stranger. She has to learn how to manage the farm, take care of a baby, and protect the property and its inhabitants from roving bands of raiders. She has to do this alone.

It’s years before Placidia is reunited with her husband, during which time tragedy and scandal descend upon her with such ferocity, it’s unclear if their love can withstand it. (They had known each other less than a week. Had they known each other at all?)

The story opens with letters from Placidia to a sympathetic cousin. Placidia is under arrest at the request of her husband for crimes committed while he was away.

The narrative unfolds slowly through guarded letters from Placidia, through the scant love letters that reached their destination during the war, and from concerned letters of family members. The time frame abruptly shifts to letters of descendants sorting through what might have happened, aided to full understanding at last by the revelations in Placidia’s diary. Although the narrative is somewhat choppy because of this format, it helps to keep crucial details hidden and add an element of suspense. One might guess the true culprit, but there’s enough doubt to keep the reader turning pages. Placidia’s strength in the face of her struggles make her a worthy heroine.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

Here’s a book to lose yourself in: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. Doig is another historical fiction legend whose books have loomed out there but that I had never tackled. Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the second novel in The Montana Trilogy and in a rather heretical move for me, I started in the middle of the trilogy. The novel is complete in itself so it doesn’t matter that it’s the second of three. Nevertheless, I now have to go back and read English Creek, because this is the kind of sweeping historical saga I love.

The story is narrated beautifully by Angus McCaskill, one of a pair of nineteen-year-old men emigrating from Scotland to find better lives. His partner, the enthusiastic leader of the adventure, is Rob Barclay. Rob has an uncle, Lucas Barclay, who left Scotland years before to settle in Montana. Every Christmas, Lucas sends $100.00 back to his kin, evidence of his success in the bountiful America.

Although terrified of water and reluctant to cross the Atlantic–a reasonable fear given what they go through in steerage–Angus is ready to follow the charismatic Rob to the end of the earth, believing that the free land awaiting them in Montana is worth the risk.

Once across the Atlantic, crossing the US is easy, but finding Lucas is harder than they thought. And when they finally locate him, in a tiny idea of a town called Gros Ventre, he’s not the same man they remember. Still, he takes them under his wing and helps them embrace the challenges of the new world.

In time, they stake their claims to plots of good Montana land and begin lives as sheep farmers. There are good times and bad. The life is hard, but working side-by-side, they scratch out a measure of success. Rob marries and settles in. For Angus, it’s more difficult. He falls in love with the school teacher in the next settlement, Anna Ramsey. Meanwhile, Rob sends to Scotland for his young sister, Adair. Rob is certain Angus and his sister will make a good pair.

Rob is used to getting his way. He wouldn’t have, this time, except that Anna rejects Angus’s proposal. On the rebound and tired of life alone, and because Adair is intelligent, quiet, and a reasonable enough choice, Angus marries her after all.

Life goes on.

The novel carries us from 1889 through the end of WWI, taking us along through major changes in the western US and the world. As historical fiction, it immerses the reader in time and place, but more than the epic history so wonderfully presented, it’s the people who make this such an engrossing read.

The families are buffeted by the hardships of homesteading in Montana and by the difficulties inherent in marriages and in friendships. Angus is as steady as they come, but his hard-headed obsession with a woman who doesn’t want him eventually costs him dearly. Rob, ever convinced that whatever he does is right, cannot come to grips with the fact that his closest friend no longer will follow wherever he leads. This is one of those stories that wraps you up in the lives of the characters and breaks your heart.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

This past week, I took care of a deficiency in my novel reading: I think I may have been the only person who hadn’t yet read Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart.

This fast-moving historical novel is based on a true-life character, Constance Kopp, who became a female deputy sheriff in Paterson, N.J., back in the early 1900s.

Constance and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, live on a farm outside of town, essentially hiding from the world, having had a fear of strangers instilled in them from birth by their now-deceased mother. Norma prefers animals and farmwork to people so the isolation doesn’t bother her. The significantly younger Fleurette, extremely pretty, pampered, and innocent to the point of gullibility, wants more interaction with others because she loves drama and being admired. And then there’s Constance. Her motivating concerns are revealed through the course of the novel.

Tall and imposing, Constance has a no-nonsense approach to life. She’ll do anything to take care of her sisters. Previously, that has meant housework and farmwork and worrying about finances. This changes when, during a trip into town to shop, they are involved in an accident. A reckless driver plows his car into their horsecart. Although their injuries are relatively minor, the cart is ruined. The driver, Henry Kaufman, owns one of the local silk mills. He’s a belligerent bully who has no intention of taking responsibility for the damage he’s done. When Constance presses for payment, Henry unleashes his squadron of thugs on the Kopp sisters. He’s employed these men as strikebreakers in the past, and they know how to instill terror.

The Kopps endure bricks through their windows, an attempt to burn down their house, death threats, and most horrible of all, threats to kidnap Fleurette. Although Constance has enlisted the help of local law enforcement, discovering an ally in the attentive Sheriff Heath, it is Constance’s bravery and commonsense response to each new threat, as well as her determination not to cave in to the powerful factory owner, that brings the adventure to a satisfying conclusion.

The quirky Kopp family guarantees an enjoyable read. Book two is out now and I’ll make sure it doesn’t take me as long to get to that one.

Friday, September 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

In recent years, historical fiction fans have been treated to a number of exciting, emotionally compelling novels about women during WWII. Mostly focusing on aviators, spies, or women involved in the Resistance, they also show how women coped with trying to survive and protect their families while living under occupation. The stories generally are based on real life situations, and it’s fascinating to contemplate the strength and resiliency of these women and what they accomplished.

Having enjoyed a number of these books, I was excited by the upcoming release (October 18) of Anne Sebba’s nonfiction account: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation.

The book is exhaustively researched with extensive notes. It includes examples of women from many walks of life whose levels of resistance versus adaptation varied widely. It also includes women who were viewed as collaborators, and raises questions about just what "collaboration" meant. One important point raised was how differently Jews in France were treated by both Nazis and the non-Jewish French population as compared with women resisters, during and after the war. Moreover, women’s roles were deliberately downplayed by men in power after the war, who seemed unable to admit just how dependent the fight had been on females. It’s an eye-opening and sometimes difficult book because of the injustices exposed. For all these reasons, it is well worth the read.

That said, it often reads as a string of anecdotes and the thread of what the author is trying to say gets lost. Organized into chronological sections, each section bounces from one woman to another as if simply to squeeze as much of the author’s research in as possible. It’s difficult to keep the players straight, and for that reason, each woman’s individual story loses its appeal. While the anecdotes were interesting, the book as a whole tended to drag. I ended up not so much interested in the narratives of the individual lives, but more in the overall impression created by so much determination and sacrifice, much of which went unacknowledged until recently.