Sunday, June 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

 It seems whenever I’ve read anything about Shakespeare, fiction or nonfiction, there has been a tantalizing glimpse of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe somewhere in the background. Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, also a playwright and poet, a witty, aggressively misbehaving genius, who died too young. It’s also pretty well established, though difficult to prove, that he was a spy for Queen Elizabeth.

A Tip for the Hangman
by Allison Epstein is a superb newly released historical novel that takes what is known about Kit Marlowe and runs with it. Beginning with his impoverished student days at Cambridge, the novel guides Marlowe (and the reader) through the twists and turns of Elizabethan political intrigue and the Protestant-Catholic struggles. By focusing on Marlowe, the story avoids getting bogged down in the historical complexities, but nevertheless presents a richly detailed picture of the problem as well as a fascinating look at the man.

Kit Marlowe is a complicated protagonist. Admired by most, loved by few, and hated by many, Marlowe had a difficult life made more difficult by his obvious, multifaceted genius. His wit could be cruel. He could be crude. He was a blasphemous atheist. His loyalties were to his friends and to the man he loved, not to any greater cause. But it was the “greater cause” that ruled his life and that ended it, though he would have preferred to live long, love well, and write plays.

The pace of the story builds throughout. Marlowe is a conflicted man who sees that each choice he makes has disturbing consequences, and much of the time he is forced merely to choose the lesser of two evils. Choice may not even be the right word, since he is often coerced along the path by events beyond his control, or by mistakes he should have avoided but could not, being the man that he was.

This life of Marlowe’s making is a stew of moral ambiguity. The reader is confronted with the difficult questions and quandaries the artist/spy faced. Epstein’s marvelous writing and careful plotting twine together Marlowe’s art and his reality. The heart-wrenching ending of the book is a masterful culmination of all Marlowe worked for and all he worked to avoid.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache by Jenni L. Walsh

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

A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache
by Jenni L. Walsh is a historical adventure following the escapades of Simone Jules a.k.a. Madame Eleanor Dumont a.k.a. Madame Moustache, a female croupier who made a name for herself in the American West during the Gold Rush era of the mid-nineteenth century. A real-life historical figure, Madame Moustache pops up here and there in the historical record and is known for popularizing the card game “twenty-one” or “vingt-et-un.”

Following a great personal tragedy, the young Simone Jules made her way from New Orleans to San Francisco in order to start anew. She left behind her old life, including a fiancé. Arriving in California, Simone discovered there were few options available to single women, aside from the obvious. But she was not interested in pursuing any of those careers. Rather she wanted to earn her keep by gambling, playing the card game her mother had taught her. Vingt-et-un was unfamiliar to the men of the city, primarily gold miners, and she was able to tap into the riches they were pulling from the ground.

Gold mining was a boom and bust occupation. Therefore, so was gambling. Simone had to pick up and move many times to follow the money, living in circumstances ranging from the dubious comforts of a thriving boomtown to the primitive settings of miners’ camps. Along the way, she loves and loses, and struggles with wanted and unwanted (mostly unwanted) attention from men.

The novel does a lovely job of making the world come alive and fitting it into the historical context of the day. It’s interesting to see a woman make an unconventional life for herself. Nevertheless, I never really connected with the protagonist, even though I admired her pluck. Her emotions were convincingly described, but I wasn’t moved by them. Maybe it’s because her strongest love was always for her card game. Even so, I recommend this novel for its careful portrayal of a nineteenth-century woman who was determined to live in a man’s world on her own terms.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is one of my favorite historical Romance writers. I’ve been following her A Westcott Novel series since the beginning, seven books ago. The underlying premise is that upon the death of the earl of Riverdale, it was discovered that his marriage had been bigamous. His three children--two daughters and his son (the heir)-- were immediately disinherited and ostracized by the ton. His fortune went to his firstborn, a daughter, who had been raised in an orphanage and then became a teacher there. His entailed properties went to a cousin.

The Westcott family is large and extended. The novels follow the various courtships and marriages of the daughters, the unfortunate wife who was not legally a wife, cousins, aunts, and now, with Someone to Cherish, the disinherited son.

Harry Westcott was twenty years old at the time of his father’s death. He had a couple of weeks to enjoy his new status of earl and head of the family before his world came crashing down. Lost and helpless, he joined the army and fought against Napoleon. He was badly wounded and took years to recover. Now, he lives at an old family estate in the country, Hinsford Manor. His step-sister (the legitimate heiress) owns the property but has essentially given it to him, if he would only take it.

Harry is content with his life, but his family (the whole huge lot of them) worry about him. He’s about to turn thirty and he’s alone. The women decide to throw him a surprise party and do some matchmaking.

The town of Hinsford is small and everyone knows everyone. Harry is treated with all the courtesy and respect that would have been his if he were still an earl. (Although they call him Major instead of milord.) One of the townspeople--Harry’s neighbor, in fact-- is the young widow of the previous vicar. The vicar was a well-regarded zealot who died saving a local youth from drowning. His wife, his helpmeet, is the largely invisible Mrs. Lydia Tavernor. Lydia lived in her husband’s shadow, echoing his good works. She has completed her year of mourning and is beginning to emerge into society. But though she has discovered a few close female friends, she still does her best to remain inconspicuous. It’s difficult being the pious widow of a martyred vicar.

Lydia is determined never to marry again. She’s had enough of overbearing males in her life. But she’s lonely. She wonders what it would be like to take a lover. Specifically, she wonders what it would be like to have an affair with Harry Westcott.

This is not something she would ever act upon. Except, after a quiet evening of cards and music at the home of mutual friends, Harry is prevailed upon to walk her home. They have never had a real conversation before, despite being neighbors, but both enjoy the short walk. As they arrive at her home, a small cottage that she keeps by herself, she asks Harry if he’s ever lonely. Although she doesn’t finish the thought, it’s clear to him what he’s asking and what she’s offering. Nothing happens that night, but he returns the next day to further the friendship, because he is lonely too. Things take their course. Scandal ensues, the culmination coinciding with the arrival of the extended Westcott brood for Harry’s surprise party.

The novel is lovely. The plot unfolds a bit slowly since there is a lot of backstory to cover, largely to catch the reader up on Harry’s family. It’s nice to be reminded of the lot of them, though it would probably be overwhelming (and maybe unnecessary) for readers jumping in here or having jumped in somewhere in the middle. I’d recommend reading the series in order, although it will require a significant investment of time by now.

Harry and Lydia make a fine couple. Harry has a painful past to overcome, but he has made great strides already and finding his own true love is the final step for him. Lydia also has had a difficult past. Her marriage was not what people imagine and it’s a leap of faith to imagine another marriage would be different. 

Mary Balogh has a gift for creating sympathetic characters, protagonists to root for, and a large, warm supporting cast. I’ll continue reading about Westcotts as long as she keeps writing about them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine

 I bought Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine a couple of years ago, because I wanted to have a historical framework for all the period Romances I keep reading. This is, according the to book jacket, “The new, definitive history of the nineteenth century in Britain from one of the world’s most authoritative historians.” 

My intentions were good, but the book was rather an intimidating doorstop, so it took awhile before I got up the motivation to read it.

The book is an impressive undertaking. It’s primarily a political and economic history, walking the reader through the successive prime ministers and their cabinets. It does a good job of presenting the major political questions of the times and explaining where the Tories stood versus the Whigs on the issues, and how that evolved into the Conservatives versus the Liberals. The various wars fought by the British during those years are folded into the timeline, but are not given particular emphasis. The monarchs are mentioned, but take a backseat to the politicians. And there is a smidgen of social history, listing some of the writers and artists of the age. It’s densely written, interesting but not a page turner. The author provides a massive amount of information, but keeps a steady focus to make it a manageable book.

Given that my knowledge of the history was pretty cursory, this was a good place to start for a general outline, but there is no way I could absorb all the political information. Some things stood out as areas I’d like to read about in more depth, but a lot of the other information blurred as I read on. It would be interesting to re-read the book after more in-depth exploration of the time period, but I doubt I’ll have that much motivation. I’ll settle for the big picture this book provided.