Sunday, June 27, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Dangerous Lover by Mary Lancaster

 Despite my mountainous TBR pile, I’m always thrilled to add a new favorite writer to my list. I’m currently enjoying the Crime and Passion series by Mary Lancaster. I reviewed Book 1 and Book 2 earlier, and just finished Book 3, Dangerous Lover.

The constant in the series is the delightful crime-solving couple, the unconventional Lady Grizelda and her revolutionary-in-exile husband, Dragan Tizsa.

The most recent novel features Alexandra Battle. After following her criminally charming pianist father across Italy, Alexandra takes refuge in London, respectably caring for children as a governess. She’s very good at it. She finds herself hired to look after a six-year-old girl with a penchant for temper tantrums. The girl is the daughter of Sir Nicholas Swan, a man with a shady, rakish past, also recently returned to England from Italy.

The novel follows the expected trajectory as far as the relationship goes, but takes some adventurous detours. Nicholas is not what he seems. Alexandra’s past comes back to haunt her. And Dragan and Griz, while only secondary characters in this book, do come through to help with their usual panache.

This series is loads of fun, with well-developed protagonists and a charming love story.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: When a Duke Loves a Governess by Olivia Drake

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

Olivia Drake’s Unlikely Duchesses series are fun Regency Romances. See my previous review of Forever My Duke (Book two).  The third book is When a Duke Loves a Governess

Tessa James is the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid and an unknown member of the aristocracy. Her mother died in an accident when Tessa was only six, and she was raised in an orphanage/workhouse, then apprenticed at age fourteen to a milliner. She has been saving her pennies for years, hoping to earn enough to set up her own millinery shop, but realizes she’ll never save enough. So, she’ll have to locate the father who seduced then abandoned her mother, and convince him to loan her the money. The only clue she has about his identity is a gold locket given to her by her mother, with a small coat of arms on the back.

While working at the hat shop, Tessa overhears two ladies gossiping about the duke of Carlin, a widower with a four-year-old daughter. They say the duke has lost yet another governess, because his daughter is an impossible brat. Of course, he’ll soon be seeking another.

Tessa resolves to present herself for the position in order to get her foot in the door of “the ton” to search for clues about her father’s identity. Although she’s not technically qualified and is certainly not of the correct social class, she does have experience caring for children (in the orphanage), and she has some experience with society (eavesdropping at the shop.) But she can’t use those credentials, so she lies.

Carlin is underwhelmed by Tessa’s interview and doesn’t quite believe her story, but she is persuasive and he’s desperate, so he agrees to give her a week’s trial. She does have a way with the girl, so one week extends to another, despite the fact that he learns much of what Tessa told him was untrue.

Carlin is extraordinarily virile and handsome (naturally) and Tessa is beautiful and spirited (naturally.) She helps him connect with his daughter. Moreover, she connects with him. She’s interested in his scientific endeavors. (He spent the last four years traveling the globe, collecting plants and animals to study. He’d never expected to become duke; he was fourth in line to inherit, but a series of accidents and illness left him with the title.) He’s forgiving of her falsehoods and intrigued by her mysterious past. Before long, they are fooling around, despite both of them knowing the relationship can go nowhere.

The plot is busy, with thievery and possible murder alongside the progression of the romance, the reconciliation between Carlin and his daughter, and Tessa’s search for her father. But the author pulls it all together in the end. The hero is sensitive. The heroine is clever and brave. Although the situations are contrived, it’s Romance! I’ll keep following this series.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Eat Plants Feel Whole by Dr. George E. Guthrie

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

Did I think this blog was not eclectic enough? Eat Plants Feel Whole by Dr. George E. Guthrie is different from everything I’ve reviewed before. It isn’t quite what I expected. (I didn’t read the description carefully enough.) Nevertheless, I’m glad to have gotten it from Netgalley. It was a worthwhile read. (Or should be. That remains to be seen.)

I requested the book already very aware of the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet. But as an unrepentant carnivore, I was looking for a not-so-drastic way to decrease meat and increase whole grains and vegetables. I thought this was a vegan recipe book. While there are recipes and meal plans at the end of the book, the first part is more instructional/motivational. 

The author is a wellness physician who guides people toward healthier lifestyles. There are many anecdotes of patients who were able to reverse their diabetes, cholesterol elevations, lose weight, etc. There are also fairly comprehensive discussions of micro and macronutrients–how much do we need? Where can those nutrients best be found?

For readers who want a firm foundation before embarking on a new, healthier lifestyle, this book provides that. For those who want motivation to make a change, this book is certainly inspiring. It’s lengthy for all that, and I found myself skimming a good deal, though I slowed down when parts of the book hit home.

The recipes that I was hoping for come in the second half of the book. I had fully intended to try a few for this review. However, in what I consider a poor omen for committing to this particular lifestyle change, we suddenly have a lot going on in our lives (emerging from our pandemic antisocial stupor), and this review is so long overdue that I didn’t want to put it off any longer. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, I’ll post an update.

For now, this is a comprehensive guide to plant-based eating. If you are someone interested in what all that entails and how it could be beneficial, this book can help.

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.