Thursday, April 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Letters to a Lover by Mary Lancaster

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

Letters to a Lover by Mary Lancaster is a fast-paced historical mystery/romance set in Regency London. It’s book two in the Crime and Passion series. I didn’t realize this when I requested it from Netgalley, and might not have requested it if I’d known, because I don’t like to read a series out of order. However, this book works very well as a stand-alone.

Unlike most Romances, this novel begins with an already-married couple: Azalea (Lady Trench) and Eric Danvers, Viscount Trench. They have been married for eight years, have two young children, and are still very much in love. However, after the birth of her daughter, Azalea suffered from post-partum depression. (Very much not typical Romance fare.) Though he had no idea what was wrong, Eric supported her. Eventually, she emerged from the darkness of depression, but overcompensated by throwing herself into the social whirl of London. As she grew busier and giddier, she and Eric spent less and less time together. Both want to regain their previous closeness, but pride and fear keep them apart.

That is the backstory. The novel opens with Azalea confronting the terrifying scenario of memory loss. A portion of her life, one party in particular, is a blank. Apparently, she behaved very inappropriately because a man she barely knows implies they have an intimate connection. If that isn’t bad enough, she receives a letter from a blackmailer who claims to have passionate love letters that she has written. If she doesn’t pay him, he will expose her.

Azalea doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t think she cheated on her husband, but she has this terrible blank spot in her memory, and something must have happened. Fortunately, Azalea’s sister and brother-in-law have some expertise in solving crime. (Backstory from book one.) Also, fortunately, her husband is devoted to her and is as determined as she is to figure out what is going on.

The plot is gripping enough and the pace was quick enough to keep me from dwelling on the bits that stretched believability. Amnesia plots are difficult to carry off, but her amnesia was limited enough and explained well enough that it worked. The relationships between husband and wife, and between Azalea and her sister, were heart-warming. The conclusion is satisfying.

And I must have enjoyed it because as soon as I finished I bought book one.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Book of Love by Erin Satie

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

The soon-to-be-released Book of Love by Erin Satie is an engagingly silly and serious romance set in the mid-eighteen hundreds in London. While following some of the conventions of Regency Romance (the hero is a duke, the storyline primarily is one of courtship and marriage), there is more emphasis on the politics of the day, mostly the struggle for women’s rights.

Cordelia Kelly is a gently-reared lady, the daughter of a judge. Pretty, intelligent, and a little too serious, Cordelia is unable to settle for any of the men her parents parade before her. Her father, who once supported her education, now regrets having raised a daughter with a mind of her own. When the family drama escalates, Cordelia escapes to London determined to support herself as a book-binder. For the most part, she succeeds. Although her position is financially precarious, she has a small but loyal clientele. She also has a small group of similarly independent female friends. She isn’t looking for a man in her life. Nevertheless, one finds her.

Alistair Chandros, Duke of Stroud, is a giant of a man. (Handsome, of course, but the description makes him sound like he has a pituitary disorder.) He has a kind heart, and his threatening size has always been a problem. He compensates by playing the fool in order to be less intimidating. He’s played village idiot for so long that no one takes him seriously, despite his wealth and title. And he is riddled with self-doubt, believing his own press. He occupies his time staging pranks, both for his own amusement and to secretly serve the interests of close friends.

During the course of a prank, Alistair crosses paths with Cordelia. She is utterly unintimidated by him and he’s delighted. He manages to find out who she is, and gets a little “stalk-y,” and she berates him for it, charming him even more.

They dance around each other, with Alistair growing a bit more serious and Cordelia learning to enjoy life again. The relationship develops in a believable way.

At the same time, Cordelia pursues her interest in promoting the Petition for Reform of the Married Women’s Property Law and, later, a divorce law granting women the right to sue for divorce. It’s hard to grasp how few legal rights women had in the nineteenth century, and how hard-fought were the battles to win even the first glimpses of equality. It’s an unusually serious subject for a Romance. And while the author doesn’t take us too deep into the weeds, she does make her point.

If you’re looking for a historical Romance with a little more substance, this one fits the bill.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America's First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

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

Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier
by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is an interesting but unsettling read. The book uses the timeline of Daniel Boone’s life as the scaffold for the history of white settlers displacing Native Americans in the near-west frontier, the lands west of the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi.

The book is, in part, a biography of Daniel Boone. It gives some of his family history as background and follows him until his death. It also retells some of the more famous anecdotes of his life. But it’s not an in-depth biography of the man. It focuses more on the larger history of that “first frontier.” It incorporates the American Revolution, but only as it impacts the western theater. It is primarily a history of the continual, brutal warfare between the settlers and the original occupants of the land.

It is well-researched and reads quickly. Boone is an impressively brave character, but this is no psychological study and I can’t help but think his good points were played up and his bad points ignored. For example, I would have hated to be his wife.

The history is interesting and important, and it’s not something I ever learned in any detail, so I was glad to fill in some of those gaps. My knowledge of Daniel Boone was sketchy and I always envisioned him as more mythical than real. The narrative recounted here is all too real. While the authors attempted a balanced portrayal, there is no avoiding the ickiness of the subject matter. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Reluctant Bride by Natalie Kleinman

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

The Reluctant Bride by Natalie Kleinman is a pleasant, old-fashioned, squeaky-clean Regency Romance. 

Charlotte (now Lady Cranleigh) is a young widow. She’d been forced by her nearly impoverished father to marry an older man to rescue the family fortune. The man, the Earl of Cranleigh, was kind enough that she couldn’t hate him, just the circumstance. A few weeks into the marriage, the earl conveniently fell off his horse and broke his neck. Charlotte had to spend the next year in mourning although she wasn’t grieving. She weathers that and emerges ready to face the world, now essentially emancipated from her controlling father. She is also able to support her younger sister and the cousin who raised them after her mother’s death. So, life is good and she has no real desire to change things.

Charlotte enjoys her return to society and finds herself (and her sister and cousin) attracting the interest of beaus. One of these, Lord Roxburgh, is a stereotypical villain, who pursues her for her fortune and is willing to use foul means and fouler to obtain her. The other is her late-husband’s cousin, the duke of Gresham. He attends to her first out of duty (having inherited the late earl’s property and title) and then out of affection. 

The courtship progresses slowly. Charlotte is the last person to see Gresham’s interest and to recognize her own. The hero and heroine are kind, proper people. Gresham is a bit too perfect to make for an interesting character, and Charlotte, too, is fairly bland. The conflict is subdued, largely external, caused by Lord Roxburgh. Gresham has money to burn and is able to make the conflicts disappear with a degree of tact that eliminates any disagreeableness. The climax of the story introduces the real hiccough. I was a bit disappointed that it was an over-used plot element in the Regency Romance genre. Many of the plot elements in the book are familiar ones. And that’s OK since there are only so many available plots in the genre, so mixing and matching is typical. But there wasn’t enough originality in this story overall to bring it alive. The conversations were gently prim and muted, without witty banter. The few arguments seemed contrived and were quickly forgotten.

For those new to Regency Romance, the story is sweet and the protagonists entirely unobjectionable. The book is a fine addition to the genre. For those who read a lot of Romance and are looking for something cleaner and quieter, this succeeds. But if you read a lot of Romance and like variety, you may find this one treads too much familiar territory to stand out.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Cecily’s Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman

 It felt like time to read a charming contemporary novel, so I chose Miss Cecily’s Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman.

Kate Parker is a going-on-forty single woman who has finally found the man she wants to spend her life with. Her boyfriend Nick is a handsome, good-natured man who shares her love of food and cooking, her sense of humor, and her enjoyment of lazing about. He works in IT and is a stereotypical computer geek, but she convinces herself that his emotional stuntedness is a result of absent parents. She can see how self-centered he is, but she loves him. And she really doesn’t want to hit that fortieth birthday alone. 

Kate’s life revolves around food. She loves to cook and to eat. Her job, at a grocery store, is to write the bits of copy on the signs to sell food items. She hates the job, but has been at it for 20 years and is afraid to quit.

Several months prior to the big birthday, Nick suggests that they move in together. Kate is thrilled. The next week, they depart on a long-planned vacation to France. There, he drops a bomb. He wants to step back. He is definitely NOT ready to commit.

Devastated and furious, she refuses to just go back to how things were. They have to take a break from each other until he figures out what he wants.

To fill time and feel useful, she starts to volunteer at a retirement home. There she meets Cecily Finn. This feisty but painfully lonely woman is ninety-seven years old and has no patience for the other elderly women in the home. At first, she has no patience for Kate, either. Kate has come armed with cooking demonstrations and Cecily heckles her. Kate has enough to deal with without a nasty old woman being mean to her, but Kate is so innately kind, and so in need of a project, that she takes on the task of visiting Cecily to draw her out.

Over time, they achieve a sort of truce. Cecily lends Kate a book from her overstuffed shelves, called Thought for Food. It’s a cookbook full of menus planned around themes, such as “Tea for a Crotchety Aunt” or “Dinner with the Man You Hope to Marry.” The book cheers Kate and, inspired by the themes, Kate begins to re-evaluate her life, her job, her friendships, and Nick. She grows close to Cecily and comes to value her friendship and advice. In turn, she eases Cecily’s loneliness and gives her a sense of purpose once more.

This is a quick, sweet story. The menus are cute and it’s engrossing to read about Kate’s cooking efforts. There are no actual recipes, which is just as well, because the cooking sounds too exhausting to attempt. Kate is a kind, sympathetic character, an easy-to-cheer-for protagonist. This was just the read I was looking for.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow

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

An Unofficial Marriage: A Novel About Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by Joie Davidow is a fine new work of historical biographical fiction. I love stories about artists, particularly writers, and their significant others, so I was eager to read this even though I’ve never read Turgenev’s work.

The novel sensitively portrays a love triangle in a way that is poignant without seeming tragic.

Pauline Viardot is a famous nineteenth century European opera star. She marries young, to Louis Viardot, who collects art, translates literature, and hunts obsessively. He’s old enough to be her father. They were introduced by George Sand, who is pleased that Pauline will have a spouse who will support and protect her. Louis acts as Pauline’s agent, shepherding her career. Pauline is fond of him but not in love with him, while he loves her with all his heart.

Her operatic touring brings her to St. Petersburg, where she is an enormous success. Ivan Turgenev attends one of her performances and is smitten. A handsome, young Russian aristocrat, Ivan lives the idle useless life he despises. At first, I found him a bit annoying—complaining that his mother is not quick enough with his allowance while criticizing her for living off the serfs they own. (Eventually though, he will become an advocate for serfs and free his own.)  He hangs around Pauline, inserting himself into her circle, fawning. She tries to treat him as merely a friend. However, before long, she can’t do without his devoted presence.

Ivan’s passion for Pauline is all-consuming. Yet he understands that she’s married and pursues her with an almost chivalric idealized love. He’s such a pleasant fellow, and so caring a friend to Pauline, that her husband realizes the best way to defuse the situation is to befriend him as well. 

The platonic phase of their relationship can only last so long. Eventually, Pauline and Ivan give into their desire for one another.

For the rest of their lives, the Viardots and Ivan form an odd threesome. They are inseparable in spirit, but not in fact. Pauline goes off alone at times for her career. And Ivan returns to Russia to claim his inheritance when his mother dies. There, he’s arrested for his radical positions. He’s placed under house arrest, unable to leave Russia. He and Pauline (and, at times, Louis) write to one another, though their letters are constrained by the knowledge that censors are reading them.

The politics, epidemics, and upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century influence the progress of their lives, but don’t change the way they feel. Eventually, the three are reunited. Louis, for the most part, swallows his jealousy and possessiveness to smooth the way for Pauline. In turn, Ivan never presses his luck by trying to separate husband and wife. The author manages to make all the characters sympathetic. The triangle succeeds because they all carefully play their roles.

Pauline is the artistic star of the novel. Ivan’s writing career is alluded to but is not central. By the end of his life, he is successful and acclaimed, but we never see him suffering for his art the way Pauline is shown suffering for hers. 

The writing is beautiful and I learned a good deal about the life and times of Pauline Viardot. Now I have to read Fathers and Sons.

Friday, April 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: How to Train Your Earl by Amelia Grey

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

How to Train Your Earl by Amelia Grey is the third book in her First Comes Love series. I enjoyed book one, The Earl Next Door, so I was happy to dive back into this world.

Brina Feld is a young widow. She lost her husband of three months when the ship he’d been sailing on went down. His heroism (he died saving a multitude of others) inspires her to devote her own life to service. Together with two friends, heroines in the other novels, she has founded a school for the sisters and daughters of sailors lost in the same shipwreck. She has spent five decorous years honoring her husband’s memory. She’s content and fulfilled, or so she tells herself and others.

Zane Browning, Earl of Blacknight, is a very reluctant earl. Until recently very far down in the line of succession, Zane had no qualms about devoting his life to gambling and womanizing. The accidental death of the previous earl and the next couple of young men who should have succeeded to the title, has left him loaded down with responsibilities he does not want, the chief of which is to marry and produce an heir.

Zane has crossed Brina’s path once before, under circumstances Brina would like to forget. When he sees her again, he makes up his mind at once. It is Brina or no one. However, while she certainly finds him attractive, in a way she never expected to be attracted again, she has no interest in changing her lifestyle.

Zane’s plot to change her mind, placing a bet that she will agree to be his wife by the end of the London Season, has the whole of the ton agog. Bets are placed for and against. Infuriated and embarrassed, Brina counters with a bet of her own. She will not marry him. Rather he will apologize to her before the world. In this somewhat ill-conceived way, he convinces her that he is in desperate need of reformation and needs her help. She agrees to help him learn the correct way an earl should behave.

Fans of historical romance can see how this will play out. Happily, it plays out in a lovely, fun-to-read fashion. This is a delightful series. Having missed book two, I’ll have to go back and see how the second heroine fared.