Monday, November 30, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Duke Meets His Match by Karen Tuft

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

The Duke Meets His Match by Karen Tuft is a clean Regency Romance with intelligent, interesting protagonists who navigate the path from mutual aversion to betrothal of convenience to love with admirable maturity and common sense.

George Kendall, Duke of Aylesham, is a prickly man whose work for the Crown, something to do with intelligence gathering during the fight against Napoleon, has kept him very busy. He knows he has to marry because he is the last of the ducal line. (Careful exploration by his secretary has located the next in line: a criminal who was transported to Australia). He has had two previous courtships, one that ended disastrously and one that never really got off the ground. However, when the prince (Prinny) summons him to announce he is being awarded the gift of a German heiress to wed, George is horrified. He has no interest in being manipulated by the prince and is under no illusions that the German princess will be any sort of prize. So he tells the prince that he is already betrothed and about to be wed. When the prince asks for the name of his intended, the first name he thinks of pops out of his mouth.

Miss Susan Jennings, daughter of a viscount, is a blue-stocking on her way to spinsterhood. She had one failed near-betrothal when she first came out, but that was many years ago. A studious young woman whose biggest dread is marrying an intellectual inferior, Susan is quite content to be a doting aunt and unmarried daughter. One year earlier, she had an unpleasant encounter with the haughty Duke of Aylesham, and she recently made his acquaintance again, equally unpleasantly, at a London party she attended reluctantly. However, they made impressions on one another, evidenced by the fact that it was her name that popped from his mouth.

George sees no option but to propose to Susan. Naturally, she rejects him out of hand. But when he explains the situation, she reconsiders. 

The novel follows the course of their uneasy courtship. Susan has ample opportunity to show what strong stuff she is made of. George comes to admire her. George has opportunity to show what a reasonable and thoughtful man he can be. Susan comes to understand him better. They fall in love.

The plot is a little strained, but the hero and heroine are sympathetic and make a convincing pair. Recommended for those who like intelligent protagonists and less steamy, more romantic Romance.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Wedding by Patrick Taylor

When I want a simple, heartwarming, non-taxing, holiday read, or anytime I want something reliably entertaining with subdued-to-absent conflict, I turn to Patrick Taylor’s An Irish Country series. I’m up to Book 7: An Irish Country Wedding

Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, the sympathetic general practitioner in fictional Ballybucklebo,  is preparing to finally wed the sweetheart from his long-ago medical school days, Kitty O’Halloran. They are very much in love and it should be smooth sailing for them, but there are a few hiccups.

First, O’Reilly’s assistant and would-be new partner, Dr. Barry Laverty, is having second thoughts about small-town general practice. He hates that he has to send every complicated case to the big city hospital for treatment. He has a particular knack for obstetrics, so has signed on to do a fellowship in the city, with the understanding that he has a few months to make up his mind about returning to Ballybucklebo.

The second potential problem is that O’Reilly’s long-standing housekeeper and cook, Kinky Kincaid, is on the defensive, worried that she will be replaced by the new wife. Since Kitty O’Halloran is a nurse who has no intention of quitting her job, Kinky’s place is secure, but she has trouble believing that. And then, she is stricken with a strangulated hernia, requiring a prolonged hospital stay and an even longer recuperation period, which makes her even more nervous about losing her place. O’Reilly, Laverty, and O’Halloran have to convince her she’s indispensable.

Along the way, there are the usual ups and downs amongst the townspeople. Various ailments, some mild, some life-threatening, need to be attended to. And there are a variety of social problems--the rich getting richer and the poor getting taken advantage of--that O’Reilly and, increasingly, Laverty, take a hand in sorting out or ameliorating.

It’s a community of decent people, full of affection for one another, living their lives. The books are a bit old-fashioned and a little bit corny, but that was perfect for a Thanksgiving read.

Friday, November 27, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Flirtation and Folly (A Season in London: Book 1) by Elizabeth Rasche

Flirtation and Folly (A Season in London: Book 1) by Elizabeth Rasche is an enjoyable and unusual Regency Romance. 

The bare bones of the plot seem fairly commonplace. Marianne Mowbrey, the eldest daughter of the large brood of a country rector and his ineffectual wife, is given the opportunity for a London Season and is determined to make the most of it. (The companion of her exceptionally wealthy Aunt Harriet is away and ailing, and Harriet has requested the company of one of her nieces for a while.) After some missteps and flirtations with the wrong men, Marianne realizes the right man has been there all along.

Nothing new there. But Marianne is not your usual Romance heroine. She isn’t looking for a good match to rescue her family but rather to escape them. She’s tired of taking care of her younger siblings and having to be the family drudge. In fact, her thoughts of them are full of  resentment, not fondness. Her nearest sister, Belinda, is also the recipient of an invitation to London by a wealthy benefactress, and Marianne resents that, too. Belinda is the carefree, charming beauty of the family, and Marianne’s jealousy of her has simmered for so long that it frequently boils over.

Marianne is not a particularly good judge of character. She’s smart but not clever. And her looks are merely average. All she has going for her, really, is that she’s nice, which in vicious ton circles is more of a handicap than an asset.

Marianne’s provincial worldview has been knocked off kilter by the novels she’s read. (She seems particularly addicted to romances.) She is convinced that her true self is that of a romance heroine. (Cute bit of self-referential theme.) Given the opportunity, she expects she will marvelously, miraculously, rise to the occasion and become the toast of the ton.

This doesn’t happen. The weird thing about this novel is that it is unexpectedly realistic. It’s more of a story of a girl coming to grips with her true self than it is a fluffy romance.

There is, of course, a romance embedded in the story. The identity of the hero becomes clear pretty quickly, though not to Marianne. He, too, seems a bit too ordinary to play the role of male protagonist in a storybook. He’s rich, but  he worked for his money. He’s attractive enough but doesn’t turn heads. And his charm lies in his niceness rather than in witty flirtation. He’s not in London looking for a wife, but rather to reclaim, somehow, the family estate that slipped through his father’s fingers. And he has some personality flaws of his own.

Like all good Romances, there is a happily-ever-after ending that the reader can see coming. But on the way to it, this novel has more than the usual depth.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O'Farrell

I told myself no more plague books. But I’ve been hearing so much hype about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell that I had to read it. This book is a beautifully written historical novel based on the family of William Shakespeare. It centers on his rather unearthly wife, Agnes, and their children, the eldest, Susanna, and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. 

The early lives of William and Agnes are difficult, shaped by violence and loss. Their courtship is furtive, not welcomed by either family, and their marriage is finagled by the pair (primarily instigated by Agnes) with a pre-marital pregnancy. They are happy in their marriage but not necessarily in their lives. William is sinking into depression as he envisions the drudgery of following in his father’s footsteps as a glove maker. Agnes takes charge again, finagling a way to see him off to London, where he will make his name.

Unfortunately, while he is gone, the plague comes to Stratford, sickening first Judith and then Hamnet. The Shakespeares have to adapt to the loss of Hamnet, a loss which leads to the near disintegration of the family.

It’s a difficult book to read because the author does such an incredible job of making grief real. The focus is not on the plague’s widening circles of death and the universal fear it causes, as was the case in other novels I’ve read recently. Rather, this is an intimate look at the loss of one person and how it affects those around him. It’s something to think about as the overwhelming death tolls from our own era’s plague seem to become more about statistical losses than about individual lives gone. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age by Kathleen Waters Sander

Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age by Kathleen Waters Sander is a conventional-type biography (first published in 2008 and re-released this spring) of an unconventional Baltimore woman in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Mary was the daughter of B&O railroad tycoon, John Work Garrett. A typically ruthless “robber baron,” Garrett amassed a fortune and became one of the leading citizens of the city. During the Civil War, when Baltimore tottered on the edge of the North/South divide, Garrett threw in with Lincoln despite the Southern sympathies of many in his family, largely because he believed it was in his economic interest (and Baltimore’s) to do so.

John Garrett was no philanthropist, but he was a good friend of both George Peabody and Johns Hopkins, exceedingly wealthy Baltimoreans who left huge bequests to found institutions in the city after their deaths. Mary Garrett, who served as her father’s secretary, was witness to this large scale philanthropy and absorbed its lessons.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her father’s increasing dependence upon her business acumen, Mary was not allowed to pursue her own interests or to marry. Although her brothers were given significant roles in the family companies and became millionaires, Mary was given only a “small” allowance and her expenditures had to be approved. This was painfully frustrating for a woman who possessed a better head for finance than either of her brothers.

However, many of the restrictions placed upon her disappeared after her father’s death, when she received roughly a third of the family fortune.

Unfortunately for the family’s long-term relationships, the bequests were all intertwined and caught up in the value of the railroad stock. This led, down the road, to a falling out between the siblings and especially between Mary and her sisters-in-law.

Mary’s share, whether or not she had been cheated out of a significant sum by her brothers’ accounting irregularities, was substantial, making her one of the wealthiest women in the country. As she was unmarried, the money remained hers to control. Mary was determined to use it to help women.

To that end, with the help of four close female friends, she established a prep school for girls in Baltimore. Then she turned her attentions to the newly-established Johns Hopkins Hospital and University. Part of the bequest of her father’s friend Hopkins was supposed to establish a medical school in conjunction with the university. However, the Johns Hopkins endowment was also tied up in B&O stock. When the railroad’s fortunes declined, the money for the university began to run out. The medical school was hopelessly behind schedule and seemed doomed to fail.

Mary Garrett is best remembered for her program of “coercive philanthropy.” She spearheaded fund-raising for the medical school, eventually contributing nearly the entire sum herself, but set conditions on the gift. The main condition was that women must be admitted on the same basis as men. There were medical colleges for women at the time, but they were recognized to have inferior resources to those of medical schools for men. Coeducation for physicians was a practically heretical ideal, but Mary was determined to push for it.

The biography does a wonderful job of demonstrating just what an uphill battle it was to found the Johns Hopkins Medical School on a co-educational principle. 

The book also shows aspects of Mary’s personal life: her circle of friends, her falling out with her family, her health issues. She was an intensely private person, so these parts of her life are less well fleshed out than her more public philanthropies.

Mary Garrett was, in any case, a fascinating woman, and this well-researched biography is highly recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: How to Fool a Duke by Mary Lancaster and Violetta Rand

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

How to Fool a Duke (The Husband Dilemma, Book 1) by Mary Lancaster and Violetta Rand is a short and sweet Regency Romance. 

Lady Sarah Drimmen is a guest at the hideaway castle/estate of Lady Whitmore, a mysterious older woman of great wealth and aristocratic bearing who has established a community of artistic young women who, for one reason or another, need to withdraw from society for a while. Sarah’s reason is, on the surface, straightforward. Two years earlier, a betrothal arranged by her parents fell through when the young duke rejected her after their first meeting. She was only sixteen at the time, but severely hurt. Her parents’ reaction to her failure stung as much as the duke’s rejection. 

Sarah is a talented singer. Very talented. So she retreated to the Whitmore estate to concentrate on developing her voice under the direction of a master teacher. Her parents believe she’s attending something more along the lines of a finishing school, to pick up the polish she so sorely needs if she’s ever going to attract a suitable husband.

In fact, Sarah’s plans are more complex. She wants the polish and musical skill to make an impression upon the ton, but primarily in order to capture the heart of the duke so that she can reject him this time.

The duke of Vexen (Leonard) is a patron of the arts, so he is more than happy to be summoned to the Whitmore estate for an art show as its guest of honor, even though he has never heard of the place before. From the moment he arrives, and happens upon the loveliest girl he has ever seen singing with the voice of an angel, he is hooked. He thinks he has seen her somewhere before, but can’t quite place the memory. Made aware that she is a lady of gentle birth, he understands that he can’t trifle with her, but he pursues her nevertheless. The second time he hears her sing, he remembers where they met. She was the rambunctious child throwing apples at him from a tree when he went to meet the woman he was supposed to marry. He climbed up next to her, threw a few apples himself, and was charmed. But he could not, in good conscience, marry a child. He had no idea she would be devastated by the rejection he thought was honorable. And he had no clue that her mother had thrown it in her face that he had rejected her as an unsuitable hoyden.

He can’t figure out why she doesn’t remember him. Not until he kisses her and she rejects his attentions, winning her revenge.

Fortunately, Lady Whitmore is following the progress of the relationship and sets him back on track. Sarah is already regretting her plot. 

The relationship should be in for smooth sailing, except that one of the duke’s ex-mistresses has arrived for the art show. A widow, she wants to be a duchess, and will stop at nothing to snare Vexen. Also, Lady Whitmore is hiding a rather significant secret herself.

This pleasant Romance with likable protagonists, a sweet omniscient “guardian angel,” and a nasty antagonist is a fine addition to the genre.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Wedding by Dorothy West

 It’s nearly time for our (now virtual) history/historical fiction book group meeting. Our current choice is The Wedding by Dorothy West. 

West is a twentieth-century American author and journalist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. Her best known work is The Living is Easy, a novel that I admired but didn’t particularly like because of the awfulness of the protagonist. I thought West had written more novels, but she was more of a short story writer and journalist. Her only other novel, which wasn’t published until 1995, is The Wedding.

The Wedding
is set among a community of upper middle class Black professional elites living (or summering) in Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s.  The novel takes place in the days preceding the wedding of the youngest daughter of the Coles, a prominent couple whose marriage of convenience is unraveling after years of infidelity. The narrator casts back in time to describe the lives of generations of Coles and Shelbys, the hard work and sacrifice that brought the current generation to the point of professional success and social respectability. Along the way, the families deal with racism, classism, and “colorism.”

The issues are complex. The family dynamics are painful. There are few characters to admire: most are either pitiable or awful. The sketches of the individual life stories are interesting, but it takes awhile for the story to pull together as a whole. Once it does, it barrels towards a conclusion that I had not seen coming. Although initially I found it slow going, more intent on its message than its plot, by the end it was riveting. The tragic ending was weirdly satisfying. I’m interested to see how our group’s discussion goes.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Sex and Sexuality in Georgian Britain by Mike Rendell

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

Sex and Sexuality in Georgian Britain
by Mike Rendell is a look at sex, the sex trade, and attitudes about sex in the 1700s in Britain. It starts off with presenting the prevalence of prostitution, particularly in London, and defines the strata of prostitutes from the lowliest “bunters” and “bulk mongers” to the highest and priciest courtesans. Mini-biographies of the best known courtesans are given.  There is also a nod to the rampant gonorrhea and syphilis during these times. The book provides anecdotes to show how people had sex (primarily how the rich and titled did), how they dealt with unwanted pregnancy and with infertility, and how women and the poor were exploited. There are chapters on homosexuality, flagellation, and the emergence of art and literature focused on sex.

In short, the book delivers on what the title indicates it will be about. There are interesting facts and anecdotes in the text. But, although it was organized into chapters, it read as a string of material that didn’t hold together particularly well. There was not enough historical context to explain why any of it was particular to Georgian Britain. There was no thoughtful analysis of the information. In the end, I felt as though I had just read a long list.