Monday, September 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Women of Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

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

Painful and powerful, The Women of Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell is engrossing historical fiction. Set in Calumet, Michigan, during the copper mine strikes of 1913, the novel follows the labor leader Big Annie Clements, a twenty-five-year-old woman whose father died in the copper mines and who married a miner because she knew nothing else. Annie has grown tired of watching the men in her community sicken and die in the mines while their wives struggle to raise families on too little pay and less security. When men are injured or killed on the job, their families are out on the street unless they find a family member or friend to take them in.

The mines are incredibly dangerous, especially given the long hours the men work and the introduction of the single-operator drill dubbed “the widow-maker.”

The union is beginning to make inroads, but acting too slowly for Annie. After one particularly gruesome death, Annie leads the women in an effort to convince the men to strike. The outside union organizers feel she jumped the gun. There’s not enough money in the strike fund and the percentage of union members among the miners is not high enough to guarantee support. Yet Annie forges ahead, gaining support, gaining newspaper coverage, and impressing the nation with her fierce determination.

The other side of the coin is James MacNaughton, the local manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Presented as so coldly despicable he seems inhuman, he is representative of a type that is all too real. Greedy, self-important, convinced of his own superiority and entitlement, he is utterly devoid of compassion for the men and women suffering in the mining community. MacNaughton knows his company has the resources to wait out the strike. When it lasts long enough to truly inconvenience him, he brings in strike-breakers who unleash violence with tragic consequences.

The book is inspiring and yet, devastating. It’s impossible not to be caught up in Annie’s struggle and to root for her success. At the same time, I kept thinking “this is not going to end well.”

This type of realistic historical fiction is hard to read because it highlights how terribly people treat one another and reinforces how consistently the bad guys still win. However, it also shines a light on the heroes and heroines who fight for justice. It isn’t hard to see which side of the fight is the right one.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I absolutely loved Taylor Jenkins Reid’s earlier book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, so I was excited to read her new release, Daisy Jones & the Six.

This novel uses an unconventional narrative style – an anonymous interviewer sets out to learn the reason behind the breakup of a phenomenally successful 1970s rock band at the height of their popularity. (The novel is loosely based on Fleetwood Mac.)

The story is told more or less chronologically but in snippets excerpted from interviews with band members, spouses, producers, friends, etc.  Because the events happened long ago, memories are sometimes foggy, and different perspectives shade things differently. The truth lies somewhere in between so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, giving a more complete picture of what actually happened. The various personalities come across better as a result of the way they present their stories than they would if a single narrator described them all.

As in the previous book, the author does an incredible job of creating complex, fully-rounded characters and an absorbing storyline. Readers can feel the elation, the pain, and the love that these characters are feeling as the band makes it big and then cracks apart.

The format lends itself to fast reading, so it is doubly impressive that so much emotion can be conveyed in so short a time. And rather than feeling disjointed, it coalesces as a whole.

Even if the thought of a novel based on a seventies rock band doesn’t grab you (I wouldn’t have picked up the book if I wasn’t already enamored of the author), give this one a try.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald

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

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald is meaty, in-depth historical fiction, recounting the life of a lesser known historical figure from the Middle Ages (my favorite time period). This rather somber tale is the type of historical fiction I love. The action is subdued, but the psychological picture of the man it portrays is vivid and compelling.

Canon Michael Scot was one of the most learned men in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Scot was born in the wilds of Scotland (so he was always an outsider in the south) but he was educated in Paris, the foremost Christian intellectual center of the day. The depth and breadth of his learning was so impressive that he was chosen to be one of the young King Frederick’s tutors. Their relationship flourished over the years, fortunately for Scot, as the King/Emperor’s patronage not only allowed him to pursue studies in far-flung locations but also lent him protection when the subjects he chose to study offended the Church.

Scot was fascinated by philosophy, in particular Aristotle (unfortunately pagan) and the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes (unfortunately Muslim). He lived for a time in parts of Spain under Islamic rule so that he could translate the Islamic studies into Latin. He studied not only philosophy, but mathematics, natural history, medicine and astrology. Although I usually find depictions of the occult distracting, the otherworldliness of Scot’s astrological predictions and their frightening accuracy fit in so well with the storyline that it was all believable.

Because of Scot’s knowledge of medicine and his skill in healing, the emperor chose him for his chief physician. Scot’s own medical and mental torments made him an even more sympathetic and interesting character.

Although he was a monk himself, his unorthodox interests and his close work with Muslims and Jews earned him the enmity of his fellow churchmen. His friendship with Frederick also made him a target for ambitious courtiers. His life was one long struggle to learn and to disseminate what he had learned, despite the opposition. The details of his studies seemed well-researched and were presented in enough detail to convince without becoming burdensome to read.

A Matter of Interpretation takes us into Canon Scot’s world with all its intrigues, prejudices, and opportunities. The author does a superb job of bringing Michael Scot to life and pulling the reader into the story. I’ll be looking for more by this author!

Friday, August 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

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


Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore is a delightful historical Romance that manages to spotlight the “historical” as well as the “romance.” It is set in 1879, during Queen Victoria’s reign, rather than the typical Regency period, but many of the same society customs and restrictions apply.

Annabelle Archer is the twenty-five-year old, impoverished daughter of a deceased vicar, forced to live with a cousin as a drudge because she has no other options. She is a commoner. She is too beautiful for her own safety/reputation. And she is extremely intelligent, not just intelligent in a witty, able-to-fend-for-herself way, but academically intelligent, intelligent enough to be frustrated by the lack of opportunity available to studious women and the inevitable “blue-stocking” label. If all this isn’t bad enough, she has a scandalous past.

When an opportunity arises for her to leave her cousin’s household to attend Oxford College with a stipend, she finds a way to do it. There is a condition on the stipend, however. It is provided by an organization of suffragists, and she is expected to take part in the women’s lobbying efforts. She immediately inadvertently lobbies the wrong man: the duke of Montgomery.

Sebastian, the duke of Montgomery, is known to be a cold-hearted efficient Tory who gets things done. A favorite of the queen, he has been tasked with ensuring the election of Prime Minister Disraeli in the next election. In truth, Sebastian has Liberal leanings, but he serves the queen with unquestioning determination because she is the only person with the authority to grant what he wants most: the return of his ancestral seat. The previous duke, Sebastian’s father, lost it in a card game. An ineffective duke, he frittered away much of the Montgomery holdings by neglect, drink, and gambling. Sebastian has spent his life trying to rebuild the legacy his father lost.

Annabelle’s assignment from the suffragist leader is to follow up on the initial encounter with the duke. Annabelle, desperate to avoid further scandal, is reluctant but complies. Typical developments for the genre--mistaken identity/motivations, miscommunication, prideful rebellion, and simmering passion--propel the story along as the two learn to understand one another and then fall in love.

Annabelle’s strength as a heroine is not simply her striking beauty and strong personality. Annabelle is a fascinating character because of her intelligence. She challenges the men around her with a brain and an education that more than equals theirs, despite all the advantages of their situations. Sebastian’s character impresses because even though he is a snob, his privilege has not blinded him to the plight of those lower in the pecking order. Even more importantly, he is not threatened by or made uncomfortable by Annabelle’s intelligence. He is able to recognize her as an intellectual equal and that doesn’t bother him. (What bothers him is her social inferiority.)

The two lovers have a number of hurdles to overcome. Each has to learn what is truly important to them and what goals can be sacrificed. It makes for a page-turner of a Romance.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: How to Cross a Marquess by Jane Ashford

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

I’ve been following Jane Ashford’s Regency Romance series: The Way to a Lord’s Heart. In these novels, an older gentleman, the Earl of Macklin, uses his experience with grief to aid younger lords who have lost someone dear to them.

In How to Cross a Marquess, Macklin’s current project is Roger Berwick, Marquess of Chatton, whose wife died from a fever a year earlier. (The story behind the fever is complicated and drives the plot.)

Roger returns to his ancestral home in Northumberland where he meets up with his old neighbor, Fenella Fairclough. They had been children together. He was a few years older, a mischievous boy much admired by the others in their gang. Fenella was a smitten, shy, insecure girl. Their lands abutted and their fathers argued over boundaries until they hit upon the idea of marrying their children to each other. Roger had rebelled at the thought; he rebelled against any project of his father’s. Fenella, humiliated, also refused – by running away to her grandmother in Scotland. There she grew into a mature, self-confident, and beautiful young woman.

Roger went to London where he met and married a young beauty (Arabella) whom he accidentally compromised, at least according to the girl’s mother. The mother arranged the whole embarrassing charade in order to see her beloved daughter make a grand match.  The marriage was a disaster. When Arabella died after an ill-advised outing in the rain (one that Fenella had tried to talk her out of but could not), Roger was more relieved than saddened, which led to a tremendous burden of guilt. In response to the guilt, he tended to blame everyone involved, including Fenella.

When Roger returns, he and Fenella are frequently thrown together by circumstance. Macklin arrives to see how Roger is faring and watches with benign amusement as the two find their way to one another. Macklin takes a more passive role in this romance than he has in previous stories, because the two don’t need much help. They just need time and proximity.

The plot is well-constructed and the characters pleasant. Fenella is a particularly level-headed heroine. It isn’t my favorite story of the series but Ashford’s Romances continues to entertain.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore

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

The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore is a beautifully written, atmospheric, gothic historical novel set in mid-eighteenth century New England. Unreliably narrated by the protagonist, Lucy Blunt, from the New Hampshire State Prison where she is being held for a double murder, the story moves back and forth through time to explain how she ended up with a death sentence hanging over her. She insists that she is innocent, but is she?

Lucy Blunt is not a likable character but she is sympathetic. Her life has been one of almost unrelenting misery. The book is pretty dismal because of this. At times I had to put it down to take a break from all the despair. The one bright spot in her life is her love for her employer, Eugenie Burton. The lady of the house also loves her, maybe. At least, they begin a torrid affair. Lucy is promoted from kitchen maid to Eugenie’s companion. (Eugenie is blind, and pretty much confined to the house by her possessive, overly protective husband.) This causes a good deal of friction with Eugenie’s current companion, Rebecca.

Things go from bad to worse for Lucy. Her backstory is a nightmare that keeps creeping up on her. She makes some bad decisions, but her options are so limited she doesn’t really have any good decisions available.

There is a mystery wrapped up in the story as well. If Lucy didn’t commit the murders, who did? Despite the downward spiral of misery, I had to keep reading to confirm the true culprit and learn how Lucy’s story would end.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox

Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox is another nonfiction work concerning a late nineteenth century scandal that played out in the press. (See also my review of Bringing Down the Colonel by Patricia Miller.)

In the 1870s, the renowned preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was accused by his longtime friend, protégé, and one-time parishioner, Theodore Tilton, of committing adultery. Tilton claimed Beecher had seduced his wife, Elizabeth, and he sued for damages.

Because Beecher and Tilton were such prominent moral leaders of the time (they had both been fervent abolitionists), the nation was enthralled and appalled by the charge, which was, of course, denied by Beecher and by Elizabeth. A six-month-long trial followed, which was reported in minute detail in the press, along with letters and explanations by the principals. It was such a hopeless, confusing mess of accusation and counter-accusation that the jury could not reach a verdict. Even when Elizabeth Tilton changed her story three years after the trial, now admitting the adultery, the truth remained murky. Her story had changed so many times during the trial and before it that no one placed much weight on what she said after it.

The author takes the unusual tack of presenting the story backwards, from end to beginning, to help deconstruct the arguments made by scholars, contemporaries, and the primary actors themselves. Although this leads to some repetitiveness, it is a very effective way to show just how difficult it is to get at "truth," when those involved may not have a firm grip themselves on what the truth was.

Beecher and Theodore Tilton had been extraordinarily close early on in their relationship, both personally and professionally. Beecher presided at the wedding between Theodore and Elizabeth, both members of his congregation. The Tiltons had grown up together and were teenagers when they fell in love. Beecher was old enough to be their father. But as the Tiltons grew and matured, the relationships among the three changed. This was partly a result of the men’s changing world-views and religious beliefs after the Civil War. But the interwoven rivalries and jealousies played a significant role as well. As Theodore and Beecher grew apart, Beecher and Elizabeth grew closer. How close? Close enough to deepen the wedge between the two men. By the time they were denouncing one another in court and in the press, the physical nature of the bond between Beecher and Elizabeth seems almost moot.

This is an excellent book that delves deep into the social, religious, and political culture of the times. Highly recommended for those interested in post-Civil War U.S. history.