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.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Lady's Formula for Love by Elizabeth Everett

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

A Lady’s Formula for Love
by Elizabeth Everett is not your usual Regency Romance. Rather than a simple frolic showcasing Regency London as a playground for the idle rich aristocracy, this novel shines a splash of light on the disgruntled of the times: the poor and working class, middle class, LGBTQ people, and women. There are even people of color in the novel, though their roles are small. (Really, the only ones enjoying themselves in this time period were the wealthy white men.)

The heroine is Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, a young widow and brilliant scientist. She is nursing old wounds because her deceased, significantly older husband had tried to quash her brains and turn her into a gentlewoman hostess, the appropriate role for the wife of an earl. He criticized her looks, her outspokenness, and her desire for physical affection. Upon his death, somewhat freed by it, she formed a ladies’ club, the Athena Retreat, for women to come together, support one another, and pursue various scientific endeavors. They pretend it’s merely a social club, but even that is enough to stir animosity among those who don’t belong and find the idea of women socializing to be an outrage.

Meanwhile, Chartists are advocating for universal male suffrage, and some of the protests are growing violent. One group, led by Adam Winters, has begun exploding canisters of gas that poison the lungs of innocent bystanders or those sent to quell the protests. The British government must spring into action.

Violet’s stepson is a government agent. Well aware of Violet’s expertise in chemistry, he asks her to create an antidote to the gas. Unfortunately, as she works on it, word leaks out somehow and she becomes a target. In order to protect her, her son brings in another agent, Arthur Kneland, a skilled bodyguard, one of the best. Arthur is looking forward to retiring, buying a farm in the north country where he grew up, and one last well-paying assignment will set him up. Guarding one female from disgruntled protesters should not be that difficult. As long as he doesn’t get distracted. . .

Of course, he does. From the beginning, Arthur and Violet are seized with undeniable lust for one another, which blossoms into love. The novel leans a bit too heavily into the sex scenes to drive the plot along, but there is also character development, the opening up of their hearts as they confess their inner hurts, and the denouement of the political danger. It took a while for me to get involved with the story because the plot seemed too farfetched, but the characters were both amusing and poignant and the underlying theme of female empowerment made it a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Visitor's Guide to Jane Austen's England by Sue Wilkes

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

A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England
by Sue Wilkes provides historical context for fiction set in the Regency period (~1811-1830)—fiction that deals with the upper class, or at least the middle class. This book is particularly suited to readers of Austen and her contemporaries and/or readers of Regency Romance.

The book is presented as a guidebook for those entering Regency England (mainly London) who need a primer on social customs, how to travel, what to wear, how to address others, how much money you’ll need and what to spend it on, how to go about finding a mate, etc. The book is well-researched and footnoted and quotations from Austen and others are sprinkled throughout. It’s a light read that accomplishes the task of providing details of the period, without analysis or any deep dives into the material.

If you’ve ever wondered why fictional characters set in Regency England are doing what they do, or been curious as to what particular social tidbits mean, this book provides an informative peek into the world.