Wednesday, December 12, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones

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

Sherry Jones writes powerful historical novels featuring strong female protagonists who struggle to succeed in life and love despite overwhelming odds. One of my favorite books of 2014 was The Sharp Hook of Love, a novel of Heloise and Abelard, in twelfth century France. But Jones is not tied to one historical period or type of heroine, making the accomplishments of the novels even more impressive.

Jones’ new release, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance, gives us the story of the rise of the early twentieth century American dancer/singer Josephine Baker. Born into poverty, Josephine was an indomitable child despite horrific abuse and neglect. Music and dance were her salvation.

As an African American, Josephine suffered greatly from racial discrimination. In the U.S., she could find work only in shows featuring and catering to other people of color. Her exuberance and enormous talent brought her to the notice of a troop of entertainers going to Paris. There, she found an enthusiastic audience and a new home.

In this novel, readers delve deep into Baker’s psyche. Driven by a need to succeed, to prove herself, and to find love, Josephine Baker made some poor choices, most notably in her love life. Still, for the most part, she used men as much as they used her. She did love and was loved.

She lived through tumultuous times, including WWII in Paris. Not content to lie low and evade the notice of the invading Nazis, Josephine Baker courted danger by serving as a spy for the French Resistance.

The novel does a wonderful job of recreating the larger-than-life character. It does a particularly fine job of showing the childhood and early career of the star, explaining how she became the person she was. Chapters covering her later years were more rushed. I almost would have preferred seeing this as a two-book series so that as much attention could be lavished on her second act as on the first.

Once again, Sherry Jones has given readers an emotion-packed fictional biography of a fascinating woman. I can’t wait to see what will come next!

Friday, December 7, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

One of the books referred to frequently in Heyer Society was Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance The Unknown Ajax. I happened to be at my local library recently and came across the book, so I bumped it up to the front of my TBR pile.

This novel concerns a large and extremely dysfunctional aristocratic family living out in the country, the Darracotts. Lord Darracott is elderly and a crotchety tyrant. Many years ago, his favorite son joined the military and ended up falling in love with a weaver’s daughter. When he married beneath him, Lord Darracott cut him off. Darracott had other sons and they had sons. So no one really followed what happened to the ex-favorite.

However, Darracott’s eldest son died in an accident along with that son’s son. (It takes a while to sort out the family tree.) Now, to Darracott’s dismay, the son of his (deceased) ex-favorite is next in line to be heir. Darracott summons him (Hugo) to the manor. Since he has presumably been brought up below standards somewhere in the wilds of Yorkshire, Darracott is determined to bring him up to snuff, one way or the other.

Living at the manor is the widow of another son, along with her daughter Anthea and young son Richmond. Anthea is outspoken and spunky. Richmond, the new favorite of Lord Darracott, was a sickly child but is now an odd mix of rebelliously adventurous and reluctantly docile. Darracott has decided Hugo should marry Anthea, but she will have none of that. Darracott has also summoned his other grandsons home to teach Hugo how to be a gentleman.

Hugo arrives. He’s a very large man with a heavy Yorkshire accent that worsens when he’s flustered (or when he wants to appear flustered). Hugh is a military man and he’s not at all happy to discover he is heir to this falling-down old house and its assortment of unpleasant cousins. He is, however, impressed with Anthea.

In a somewhat farcical way, Hugo (called Ajax as an insult by one of the cousins) goes about dealing with the family and learning about the manor. He discovers that smugglers are active in the region, likely hiding goods in the family’s Dower House, and the local law enforcement officials suspect Richmond of involvement. Hugo also falls for Anthea and courts her sweetly, amusingly, and persistently.

The plot requires a lot of set-up but the story is saved from dragging by the ongoing comedy of the situations and Hugo’s calm manipulation of events. The ending is all action-packed confusion staged by Hugo to save the family from calamity. It’s great fun to read (if you can ignore the nagging sense of unfairness – aristocratic privilege saves the day as much as Hugo.)

The Unknown Ajax is a wonderful example of Heyer’s style: witty repartee, smart heroines, and comedy of manners.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Heyer Society. Essays on the Literary Genius of Georgette Heyer edited by Rachel Hyland

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

I love Georgette Heyer. I’ve mostly read her Regency Romances with a quick foray into her historical mysteries. While some are more engaging than others, they are all pretty wonderful. When I saw Heyer Society: Essays on the Literary Genius of Georgette Heyer, edited by Rachel Hyland, available for review, I was intrigued. I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe literary criticism? Maybe quirky biographical sketches?

In fact, it is just what the title describes: essays about Georgette Heyer. The contributors are a number of authors in different genres united in their love for Heyer’s work. The essays are not dry literary critiques, but rather explorations of different facets of her contributions to literature, particularly Regency Romance, but also her influence on other Romance genres as well as science fiction and detective fiction. Chapters discuss such things as Heyer in film (why haven’t more of her works been made into movies?), the role of cousins in her novels (not only the rather icky question of why so many cousins marry each other, but also the larger importance of cousins in Regency Era society), and what to do with the enormous stumbling block of privilege portrayed in Heyer’s worlds (can we enjoy these very non-diverse books today without guilt?).

Written by Heyer superfans, the chapters are enthusiastic, glowing, and fun to read. References to novels I’ve read reminded me of the delightful stories and made me want to re-read. And references to the novels I haven’t gotten to yet have made me even more eager to make time to read them.

This book can be enjoyed by anyone interested in Georgette Heyer, whether you are a die-hard fan, have only dipped a toe in the ocean of her novels, or have not yet read her but are debating where to start.