Thursday, March 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne de Courcy

The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne De Courcy is an interesting look at the role of obscenely wealthy women (meaning women married to or daughters of obscenely wealthy men) in Gilded Age America. It provides mini-biographies of some of these daughters who used their dowries (or settlements) to catch titled husbands. The goal was not necessarily the title for its own sake, but the social cachet of the connection. For Americans whose fortunes were “new money,” the only sure way to scale the fortress of New York Society (ruled by old money knickerbockers) was to acquire a title. Often the dominant force was not the girl herself, but her mother, who used her daughter’s beauty and her husband’s money to force her way into the New York “in-crowd.”

The book does a wonderful job of fleshing out the intricacies of that New York Society. More interesting than the mini-biographies was the detailed explanation of how that society worked. Women ruled that world and used extravagant spending to advertise the success of the men. It was women’s duty to spend lavishly. The parties thrown, the mansions built, the jewels collected, and the Worth gowns worn are reported upon.

The lives of these women, seen from a historical distance, is shallow and sad. The majority of the daughters who bought titles and moved to England were desperately unhappy in their roles. Many of the marriages ended in estrangement or even divorce. 

The Husband Hunters is well researched, well organized, and easy to read. It shines a light on a very small segment of the population during the late eighteen hundreds that has been romanticized in popular culture. One would imagine that stories of fabulously wealthy young American women marrying earls and dukes would have fairy tale endings, but they do not. And a large part of this book left me rather appalled at all the energy invested and money wasted in the cause of snobbery and social climbing. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey

 I needed a novel for the European Reading Challenge. I also wanted to read something about men for a change, other than historical mystery/thrillers. So I picked Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey.

The novel covers the years 1499 through 1505 and is mainly set in Florence, Italy. Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. During this time period, each completes a masterwork. For Leonardo, it is the Mona Lisa. For Michelangelo, it is his David.

The two artists are as different as could be, and the novel plays up their differences and the rivalry between them.

Leonardo is in his fifties and is at the height of his fame. He is charming, well-liked, and is known as a profligate lover and seducer of many of those who commission work from him. However, he’s also a dabbler, often more interested in his scientific and engineering endeavors, particularly his dream of inventing a means for human flight, than he is in his art. As a result, he has left a string of unfinished works in his wake. He’s always looking for that next project rather than completing what he has begun. Moreover, he’s a bit of a jerk. He’s vain and selfish, self-important and condescending.  When he doesn’t get a commission he wants, he sells himself and his ideas for war machines to Florence’s enemies. When he sees a young artist as a potential competitor, he does everything he can to humiliate and thwart him.

Michelangelo is young, uncouth, largely unknown, devout, and passionate only about his art. When he wins the commission to carve a new statue of David from a massive block of damaged marble, the task consumes him. He’ll do whatever is necessary to complete it. He craves the love and respect of his family and has a few close friends, but he is not the gadabout that da Vinci is. He’s able to respect Leonardo’s work even if he hates the man. Michelangelo, un-charming though he may be, comes across as the better man in this novel.

Leonardo is saved, to some extent, by a chance meeting with a merchant’s wife. He is enchanted by her and, after a time, is able to wring a commission from her husband to paint her. She is the model for the Mona Lisa. From her, he learns something about emotional depth that softens his rough edges.

There is a lot going on in Florence besides the workings of these two. The city is threatened by Borgia’s army and by followers of the Medici. In the greater world, popes die and new popes are named. Their policies will affect the people of Florence. The politics of the times influence the city’s patronage of the artists.

The author knows the subject matter well and is able to make the historical events and the rivalry between the two great masters come alive. In addition, she guides the reader step-by-step through the creation of these two masterpieces so that they are almost visible on the page. This is engrossing historical fiction.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

 I received an arc of this book from the publisher. That did not influence this review.

Kim Taylor Blakemore (author of The Companion) has a new novel that is equally dark, eerie, and wonderful: After Alice Fell.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Marion Abbott returns to her family home in New Hampshire after a stint as a battlefield nurse. Her husband is a casualty of the war. Her return is not a joyful one. Her first action is to retrieve the body of her sister, Alice Snow, from an insane asylum. Alice fell from the roof, or so Marion is told.

Marion doesn’t believe she is being told the whole truth. For one thing, what was her sister doing on the roof?

The family home is now occupied by her younger brother, Lionel, his second wife, Cathy, and their teenage son, Toby. When Marion left home to help with the war effort, she left Alice in the care of her brother and his first wife, Lydia. Alice needed care because she was mentally ill. It had always fallen to Marion to care for her. The burden could be overwhelming at times and nursing the wounded was, in some ways, an escape. However, she never would have left her had she known that Lydia would drown, Lionel would marry Cathy, and the pair of them would have Alice committed.

When the director of the asylum tries to deflect Marion’s questions with the answer that Alice did not fall, she jumped, Marion is even more convinced something is wrong. Alice was not violent. Alice was not suicidal. Marion believes she was murdered and she goes about trying to prove it.

The novel is steeped in themes of death, madness, and secrets. The Snow family is hiding many secrets. Marion is hiding a few of her own. 

There is a gothic atmosphere in the book. The fear of madness is a strong element. The fear of being thought mad is even stronger. The more Marion pursues the seemingly wild idea that her sister was murdered, the more she invites comparison with her sister. She is essentially friendless in her old hometown. People have always feared the Snows, as if madness were contagious. And her brother and sister-in-law want to bury the past and move on. 

This beautifully written novel is so suspenseful that it is at times hard to read. I was filled with dread, wondering if Marion was in over her head, then wondering if maybe Marion was not as reliable a narrator as I’d thought (could she be the mad one?). As her world spirals out of control, I had to fly through the pages to see how it would end. Although I was left with unanswered questions, it is nevertheless a satisfying read.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

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

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner is a page-turner. I was immediately drawn in by the narrative voice and was quickly caught by the strangeness of the protagonist’s predicament and her eerily calm approach to it.

The novel begins in 1906 with the interrogation of the narrator, Sophie Whalen Hocking, by a U.S. Marshal who is investigating the disappearance of her husband, Martin Hocking. He was last seen just before the San Francisco earthquake. Sophie does not know what happened to him, but the marshal believes she does.

We then flashback to March 1905. Sophie Whalen is an immigrant from Northern Ireland who first arrived in New York City. Finding life in a tenement and work in a factory to be miserable and hopeless, she answers an ad from a man in San Francisco, a recent widower, who is looking for a wife and a mother to his young (five-ish) daughter. Sophie is intrepid and determined to make a better life for herself. She desperately loves children and wants one of her own to raise. Despite the fact that some of Martin Hocking’s reasons for wanting a mail-order bride seem a bit strange, she is pleased to have been chosen. They are married immediately and move to a lovely home in a nice neighborhood. Sophie believes she is fortunate and won’t dare complain, even if the situation is odd.

The daughter, Kat, has been traumatized and doesn’t speak. Sophie convinces herself it is the grief of losing her mother that has made her mute. Martin is standoffish, uninterested in his new wife (or his daughter), but not cruel or violent. He’s almost too calm. He works in insurance and has to spend most of his time on the road. Sophie is materially well provided for. She makes excuses for him–he is grieving his deceased wife and has walled himself off from further hurt. He just needs time.

Sophie is loving and generous and works hard to draw Kat out and make her feel safe and loved. She’s willing to be patient to earn Kat’s trust and, eventually, her husband’s affection. Meanwhile, little hints about Sophie’s own past are revealed. And inconsistencies in Martin’s tales start adding up.

The tension builds steadily as the reader grows more and more worried for Sophie and Kat. Things come to a head just as the earthquake hits San Francisco. Meissner paints a vivid picture of the quake and its aftermath. With extraordinary strength of character, despite her own suffering, Sophie takes on the task of keeping her loved ones safe.

This is a beautiful, gripping story, rich in historical detail, with a very memorable protagonist. Highly recommended!

Monday, February 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George

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

The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George is garnering rave reviews, and they are well-deserved. This delightful Gilded Age Romance (book 1 in a new series: The Gilded Age Heiresses) follows the forced, rushed courtship of American heiress August Crenshaw and Evan Sterling, the duke of Rothschild.

Rothschild inherited the title along with its heavy responsibilities and enormous debts. The fate of hundreds of tenants, his widowed mother, and his two nearly-of-age-to-debut sisters hang on his ability to turn things around. He has been trying to economize and to earn a small living by illicit prize-fighting, but that will never be enough given the size of the hole they are in. His only hope to preserve the family name is to marry a wealthy heiress. His mother has picked one out for him: the visiting American, Violet Crenshaw, younger daughter of an Iron Works magnate.

The Crenshaws are in London for two reasons. The first is to visit a friend, a fellow heiress who was forced to marry an old, rather evil duke who needed money. The second is for Mr. Crenshaw to establish business contacts in London. Unbeknownst to the daughters, there is a third reason. Mrs. Crenshaw is desperate for the increased social status that a titled son-in-law would bring her. Mr. Crenshaw is equally desperate for the business opportunities such a connection would bring. The couple is anxious to sell their younger daughter to a man (any man) with a title. To their glee, they learn of Rothschild’s financial embarrassment and set about making the sale. Never mind that Violet is unwilling. (Neither of the parents think to offer up August. They don’t think anyone would be interested in a girl so “mannish.”)

August, the elder and stronger of the two, is determined that her sister not be condemned to an unhappy marriage with a stranger who only wants her money. Seeing that her parents will not be persuaded and have rationalized their own greed and status hunger with the argument that Violet does not know her own mind, August takes matters into her own hands. She decides to appeal to the duke. Certainly, the man cannot want an unwilling bride.

Rothschild doesn’t want an unwilling bride. However, he simply cannot believe a woman would be unwilling. At the same time, he is not particularly interested in Violet. He would prefer the fiery August. Understanding that it is all the same to Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw, he chooses the elder daughter. To his befuddlement, August is equally unwilling. He hadn’t anticipating having to persuade a bride. Moreover, he’s under a time constraint that makes a long courtship impossible. He pushes too hard, too quickly, alienating August even more.

August is a business woman. She has put a great deal of effort into the iron works and is justified in believing her father values her work. So it comes as a shock to her that he would prefer a titled son-in-law and a domesticated daughter to the business partner she believed herself to be. She feels betrayed and more determined than ever not to wed the duke. 

Rothschild falls hard for August, precisely because she stands up to him. He is quick to learn from his mistakes and shows a good deal of personal growth. To her credit, she is able to appreciate his efforts to understand her. She comes to see his predicament and admires his dedication to duty. However, she still doesn’t want to be coerced by her parents into marriage.

The courtship becomes a combination of wooing and negotiation.

The sparks between the two are believable. The character development works very well. The parents are odious, but August’s supportive siblings lessen the horror of the family dynamics. The plot works well because the obstacle to their happily-ever-after ending is very real and more or less insurmountable. They will find a compromise. Love conquers all, of course, in a Romance. Yet there is an underlying twinge of realism in this novel that reminds the reader that marriage in the Regency period was no fairy tale.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Duchess If You Dare by Anabelle Bryant

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

Duchess If You Dare by Anabelle Bryant is the first in the Maidens of Mayhem series. To be released next month, it is a new addition to the genre of Regency Romance adventure. It involves a sex-drenched plot in a nominally Regency setting. The setting permits the novel to have a duke (Aylesford) for a male protagonist which in turn creates the main obstacle to the relationship: dukes can’t marry commoners. (Although as the duke himself points out often, “I am Aylesford. I do what I want.”)

The female protagonist is no ordinary commoner. Scarlet Wynn is the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute who died a violent death at the hands of her client. Scarlet is also a superhero crime fighter, a member of the Maidens of Mayhem, a group of four women dedicated to protecting the downtrodden women of London’s stews. 

The plot hinges on the disappearance of a young seamstress/part-time brothel worker, Linie. Linie designed and sewed Scarlet’s unusual outfits: trousers, split skirts, disposable cloaks, and lots of pockets for hiding knives. Scarlet is determined to find her. Linie was also the special favorite of Aylesford’s good-for-nothing younger brother. The brother is concerned by her disappearance. So Aylesford takes on the challenge of trying to determine what happened to the girl.

Aylesford is largely ineffectual. He believes he can solve the problem by throwing his ducal weight around, but that gets him nowhere. Meanwhile, Scarlet haunts the seamy underbelly of London looking for clues. Their paths keep crossing. Realizing they can help one another, but mostly drawn to each other by uncontrollable desire, they join forces. However, they make little progress, partly because every time they get together to discuss the case, they end up making out. The sex scenes become lengthier and more intense and the plot takes a back seat until the mystery is largely solved by someone else.

The novel does give a nod to the inequities of the political/economic system and plight of women in Regency England. And it does have a super-strong female lead who has no need of a man to fight her very literal battles, but only needs a man to love. Unfortunately, for me, the relationship between the two was unconvincing and focused so much on sex that I couldn’t have finished the book without skimming.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Bear Pit by S.G. Maclean

 Among the best historical thrillers I have read are the books in the A Captain Damian Seeker Novel series by S.G. Maclean. Set in England during the time of Oliver Cromwell, the books focus on the exploits of Damian Seeker, captain of Cromwell’s guard. The first book is The Seeker, and you should really start there. I bought book four, The Bear Pit, while reading book three, but I’ve been holding off reading it because these books are so amazing I don’t want them to end. (The fifth book, which I fear is the last, will be out in paperback in the fall, and I’m trying to wait till then to buy it. I might not be able to wait.)

Seeker is a busy, busy man, given Cromwell’s increasing unpopularity and the numerous factions that are attempting to eliminate him: Royalists, Republicans, foreign governments, disaffected one-time adherents. The head of Cromwell’s intelligence agency, John Thurloe (Seeker’s direct boss) is overwhelmed with all the reports he’s receiving and can’t keep up with the threats. It’s Seeker’s responsibility to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

On a personal level, Seeker is also busy. The long-lost daughter he retrieved from the north is now living under an assumed identity in London, helping to serve in a tavern. The owner of the tavern, Dorcas, is a smart, good-hearted woman in love with Seeker, and he takes what comfort there that he can. However, his heart still belongs to Maria Ellingworth, sister of a radical Republican lawyer. Their relationship was thwarted by politics and family loyalty. But when their paths cross accidentally, after two years of no contact, it’s clear they are both suffering from being apart.

Seeker also has to keep tabs on Thomas Faithly, a “turned” Royalist that he recruited as a spy, but whose loyalties he can’t be sure of. 

If all that isn’t enough, there is a bear somewhere in the bowels of London that has been feasting on human flesh. Bear-baiting, once a popular gambling sport, has been banned. Supposedly, all the bears were shot. Bear-hunting would normally be below Seeker’s pay grade, but the victim of the attack was an old army buddy of Samuel Kent, Samuel being a coffeehouse owner who Seeker would consider a friend if he had friends.

The politics of the times have been so well portrayed throughout the series that they are treated a little more lightly in this book. The reader is already immersed so it’s easy to follow what’s going on. The stakes are high for Seeker, since he must always, above all else, serve Cromwell’s interests, but his own interests are getting harder to set aside. I’m rooting for Seeker, not Cromwell.

This series is phenomenal. Highly recommended.