Thursday, September 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern by Robert Morrison

I read a fair amount—all right, a lot—of Regency Romance. It’s pure escapism. But it doesn’t give me the same sense of immersion in place and time that general historical fiction does. Despite all the genre Romance I’ve read, I don’t have much actual knowledge of the Regency time period. So, I’ve embarked on a reading spree of British history. The books include The Age of Decadence by Simon Heffer and Victorious Century by David Cannadine. They were both informative in their own way, but lengthy and serious. I wanted something focusing more specifically on the Regency period that would give me more of the flavor of the times, more of the social history.

The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern by Robert Morrison was just the book I was looking for. Drawing heavily on the personalities of the time period, inserting anecdotes throughout, the book does a wonderful job of giving a broad view of the historical events and a close-up view of some of its notable personalities. Fact-filled yet very readable, I got this book from the library, but plan to buy a copy to keep on my shelf.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Lattimore's Letter by Suzanne Allain

Regency Romance author Suzanne Allain (The Celebrated Pedestrian and Mr. Malcolm’s List) has a new novel out: Miss Lattimore’s Letter.

The heroine, Sophronia Lattimore, is a lovely spinster of twenty-eight who has more or less resigned herself to the position of chaperone to her much younger cousin Cecilia. While negotiating the London Season, Sophie accidently overhears an exchange between two young people who seem enamored of one another. However, the lady is putting the gentleman off, despite promises made to one another, because a more elevated suitor is pursuing her. Sophie is dismayed, partly because she is aware that another worthy young lady of her acquaintance is in love with the suitor. She thinks all parties involved are about to make irreparable mistakes. So she writes an anonymous letter to the elevated lord, gently apprising him of the situation.

Her interference gains the hoped for results. The courtships shift back into the correct pairs and happy marriages ensue.

Then Sophie’s identity as the letter writer is leaked. Sophie becomes a minor celebrity and is sought after for her matchmaking skills. One of those who comes to her for advice is Sir Edmund, an extremely handsome, wealthy, eligible bachelor, whose hesitation around women makes no sense. Although she has a crush on him herself, she agrees to help him meet an appropriate wife.

The parties all move on to Bath. Sophie continues in her engaging way to support her friends, deny that she has any skill at matchmaking, and flirt modestly with Sir Edmund. He seems interested in her, but she can’t believe he could possibly want a penniless spinster. He flirts, then backs off, confusing her. Things may well have progressed towards something more consistent, but they are thrown off track when a man from Sophie’s past appears.

When Sophie was eighteen, she’d fallen head over heels for Mr. Maitland, who had pursued her in earnest, giving society the impression they were all but betrothed. Then he abruptly dropped her and married someone else–a woman of fortune. Mr. Maitland is now a widower with two young children. He begins pursuing Sophie again. He is, unfortunately, the most handsome, charming man in Bath, even eclipsing Sir Edmund.

Sophie doesn’t know what to do. Mr. Maitland is courting her openly. Sir Edmund is much more reserved. She’s enjoying the attention and wants to be married. She just doesn’t know if she’ll end up with two proposals or none.

The novel is witty and sweet. The style is a little old-fashioned but also unconventional for newly released Romance. While primarily in the female protagonist’s point of view, we also get a peek inside the heads of Sophie’s cousin and her aunt, who are on journeys of their own. But we don’t get alternating chapters between the female and male protagonists. We see little to none of Sir Edmund’s thoughts, which helps to keep readers guessing (along with Sophie) as to his intentions. Although, given Romance conventions, his thoughts are not that difficult to guess. Nor is the little twist at the end any great surprise, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

Allain continues to charm with her clean Regency Romances. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Reckless Match by Kate Bateman

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

Romance author Kate Bateman has a new series, Ruthless Rivals, and book one is soon to be released, A Reckless Match. The premise sounded lively and I was pleased to receive a review copy. 

Maddie Montgomery and Gryff Davies (the new Earl of Powys) live on estates on either side of the English/Welsh border. Their families have been feuding since the beginning of time. Although no longer violent (they live in more civilized times), the fathers of these two protagonists continued the feud by baiting one another over anything they could think of. Unfortunately, the old Earl of Powys has died, leaving Maddie’s father bereft of a rival.

Also unfortunately, Maddie’s father has lost a significant sum of money on bad investments. They are near bankrupt. The family’s only hope is to marry her off to someone wealthy– most likely Sir Mostyn, a wealthy, lecherous old goat, who has offered her father 2000 pounds for her. He’s twice Maddie’s age. Everyone in the village dislikes him. Maddie is in a quandary.

Moreover, Maddie has been secretly intrigued by her neighboring enemy, Gryff, since they were tussling children. And he has been fascinated by her. Because of the family history, and because of their own personalities, they can only show their mutual interest by teasing and fighting one another. Certainly, Maddie can’t look to Gryff for marriage and economic salvation.

It’s been a while since they’ve seen one another. Gryff was off fighting Napoleon, returning only when he inherited the title and had to abandon his regiment. As for Maddie, she’s been involved with archaeological explorations on the Montgomery lands. But when Gryff does return, sparks fly. Their bickering picks up where it left off, as does their mutual unacknowledged attraction. While maneuvering to meet up with one another to bicker more, they stumble across a smuggler’s cache of brandy. The plot proceeds as they work together to catch the smugglers and bring them to justice.

This all has the makings of an entertaining romance, but I was not particularly entertained. While there was evidence of an underlying affection between the two, mostly there was a lot of ogling of one another’s body parts and fierce denial of any possibility of mutual regard. It seems that the sparring in their youth consisted of rather intense bullying performed by Gryff, later explained by the fact the he “liked” her, and that’s how boys show they like girls. As an adult, his teasing/bullying takes the form of injecting sexual innuendo into every conversation. Maddie has to pretend she is not intimidated–or titillated– by his suggestive talk. And that was what passed for witty banter. It seemed immature on his part and got tedious to read through.

There was enough to hold my interest in the smuggling plot to finish the book. However, the sibling and cousin pair-ups that were introduced in this book to set up the next books in the series appeared likely to be more of the same, and the romance in this novel was not convincing enough to draw me into the series.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather is one of the lesser known novels by the author of O Pioneers!My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Published in 1923, this is a lovely classic.

Set in Sweet Water, a western town established alongside the Transcontinental Railroad in pioneer days, the novel focuses on the slow decline of its heroine, Mrs. Marion Forrester. At the beginning, she is the charming young wife of a railroad contractor, Captain Daniel Forrester. Many years older than his wife, he’s an old-fashioned aristocrat, benevolent with a strong sense of duty and honor, and a love of beauty. He’s devoted to his wife and, as he ages, comes to depend upon her completely. 

Mrs. Forrester is widely known for her graciousness, her vivacious charm, and her hospitality. Everyone who knows her loves her, although some of the townswomen do so grudgingly. She does act rather superior to other women and tends toward the catty, though that’s not something her many male admirers notice.

The story is narrated by Niel Herbert, a younger man who has admired Mrs. Forrester since he was a boy and she was a young wife. As one of the better educated, better mannered youths of the town, he is able to appreciate her finer qualities. He’s brought up by his uncle, a judge, who is a particular friend of Captain Forrester, so Niel spends many evenings as a young man in the company of the couple. As the Captain ages and his finances decline, Niel helps keep an eye on them. In the process, he discovers that Mrs. Forrester is not as loyal to her husband as he’d thought, a realization that disillusions him but does not completely ruin his image of her.

When the Captain suffers a series of strokes, his wife takes care of him, but with difficulty. She isn’t meant for a life of boredom and drudgery. Often, Niel finds her smelling of alcohol.

Niel escapes Sweet Water for a time, attending architectural college in Boston, but he returns to find the Forresters sunk low and his own uncle ailing. He delays his return to school until after Captain Forrester dies and Mrs. Forrester sinks to new lows. At this point, he gives up on her. It’s only later that he can recall her with any fondness, and even then, he likes to remember her as she was in her vivacious younger days, before his disillusionment.

There is much in the novel glamorizing the settling of the American West, the superiority of the early settlers and ground breakers, contrasted with the inferiority of those in the next generations. Mrs. Forrester’s decline is emblematic of the loss of luster after the closure of the frontier. Niel’s nostalgia for his youth, his memory of Mrs. Forrester as she was, and Sweet Water as it was, make for a melancholy read.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Unmasking the Hero by Mary Lancaster

Mary Lancaster has a new Regency Romance series (Pleasure Garden) and book one, Unmasking the Hero, has just been released. 

Grace, the Countess of Wenning, was abandoned by her husband the morning after their wedding. He left no explanation, only a curt note telling her she might go on the wedding trip alone or go live in one of his houses. Her choice. Meanwhile, he embarked on a two-year diplomatic posting to China, one that he had previously turned down.

The backstory is that on that same morning, Oliver Harlaw, Earl of Wenning had found a letter that Grace had written to a lover, decrying her “dreadful marriage.” Devastated, Oliver raced to the ship bound for China to pick up his career where he had left it. 

Gobsmacked, Grace is forced to face the ton and its gossip alone. She decides to brazen it out by socializing wildly and flirting with all comers. She attracts a large circle of admirers, mostly harmless, and learns how to discourage the men who expect too much. She never crosses the line to actual cheating because even though she hates Oliver for leaving her humiliated her, she loves him still. 

Now, Oliver has just returned from two years abroad and must face the wife he discarded but has never ceased to love. During his absence, he’d heard reports of his wife’s wild lifestyle, but also received assurance from a trusted friend that there was no lover in her life.

Oliver is hoping to understand the truth (approaching her—not quite spying, but close to doing so—during a series of masquerades) and to set things right, while Grace, who has learned of his return only from the newspapers and gossip, is bent on revenge.

Suspend disbelief for a bit: yes, it seems farfetched that Grace does not recognize her masked husband right away, but if you accept this, the rest of the plot unfolds in a lively fashion. The protagonists are sympathetic characters who belong together. This is signature Mary Lancaster romance. I look forward to book two.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Yours Cheerfully by A. J. Pearce

Can it possibly be three years since I read Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce? At the time, I was so charmed by the book that I wished for a sequel. Well, here it is!

Yours Cheerfully by A. J. Pearce continues the adventures of Emmeline Lake, a plucky young woman in WWII London, just before the U.S. enters the war.

Emmy is an advice columnist for a women’s magazine called “Woman’s Friend,” an upbeat if slightly outmoded journal, now headed up by a somewhat bolder editor than Emmy’s previous boss.  The new boss, Mr. Collins, has more journalist cred and is more willing to take on tough issues. Also, he’s the elder half-brother of Emmy’s boyfriend, Charles, an army man. However, sympathetic to Emmy’s causes, Mr. Collins is constrained by the War Ministry and the financial backer of  the journal. Things have to be upbeat, patriotic, and non-critical of the government. Emmy is not given free rein. 

Emmy throws herself into her career with the same impulsive enthusiasm (and compassion) that nearly got her fired from the magazine under its previous editor. However, she has matured and is doing her best to approach challenges more professionally. She loves her job. Her boss is wonderful. And she’s in love. Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, deal with war time nastiness with a typically English humor, keeping calm and carrying on.

Even so, Emmy’s resolve not to rush into trouble again is rattled when she gets an assignment to write on female participation in the wartime workforce. It seems the patriotic women are very willing to participate. In fact, some of them are also very much in need of the paychecks (especially the war widows left high and dry by the government on measly pensions that don’t come close to supporting the children of the dead soldiers.) But women are paid less than men. And there is no support for working women with children. (It all sounds depressingly familiar.) The government nominally supports childcare (nurseries) but there are too few, the hours don’t correspond to the round-the-clock shifts the women have to work, and, worst of all, nurseries have to be requested by the factory owners. Some of these factory leaders see no need to petition the government for childcare for their workers. They figure the women should magically deal with the inconvenient kids by themselves. One boss in particular (where Emmy’s friends work) is firing women right and left while simultaneously benefitting from the government’s campaign to get more women into factory jobs.

Seen through Emmy’s compassionate (plucky) eyes, this wartime story manages to charm while also showing the hard realities faced by women on the homefront. Emmy and her friends lift each other up and help each other bear the unbearable. It’s lovely to read.

I suspect there is a book three in the offing. I hope so!

Monday, September 6, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Golden Age by Cecelia Tichi

After enjoying the book Jazz Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Roaring Twenties by Cecelia Tichi, I decided to read her previous book, Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America’s Golden Age. Similarly, it’s a short history of the cocktail placed in the historical context of the late nineteenth century. Again, it touches upon a few of the historical events and well-known figures of the times, and gives cocktail recipes for what they imbibed and served (or might have imbibed or served). It’s a short, entertaining book. The cocktail recipes got a bit monotonous, seeming to be mostly slight variations on the same few ingredients. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the oversized role played by cocktail drinking in the Gilded Age. Similarly, it’s a short history of the cocktail placed in the historical context of the late nineteenth century. Again, it touches upon a few of the historical events and well-known figures of the times, and gives cocktail recipes for what they imbibed and served (or might have imbibed or served). It’s a short, entertaining book. The cocktail recipes got a bit monotonous, seeming to be mostly slight variations on the same few ingredients. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the oversized role played by cocktail drinking in the Gilded Age.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet

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

In Regency Romances, the characters are often jaunting off to house parties in the country. Curious about these British country houses, I was pleased to be able to read The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet. The book takes the reader on an architectural tour of country homes through the ages: Medieval through the current day.

The text focuses on the houses themselves, along with the owners and architects. There is only a nod to the historical context. The “story” is interesting, but the narrative makes for a rather rambling tour. Details began to blur.

I often found it hard to visualize what the author was describing. There are a few photographs, but not as many as I would have liked. Of course, photographs are not possible for many of the buildings. The author makes the point that a lot of the homes are gone while others have been altered significantly over the years. There are in-depth descriptions of some homes, but sketches or floor plans may have made it easier to visualize what the buildings looked like.

Overall, I think this may make a better reference book to dip into for representative houses of different time periods than as a story to read straight through.

Friday, September 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Social Graces by Renee Rosen

At the height of the Gilded Age, two women ruled New York High Society: Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. Their rivalry was legendary. My first introduction to this battle for supremacy was in Gore Vidal’s 1876, though it was only a small part of that novel. A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler was a more focused look at the jockeying for position by obscenely wealthy women of the times. The Social Graces by Renee Rosen (released this year) is another look at the dueling Grand Dames.

Caroline Astor (THE Mrs. Astor) is the reigning queen. Coming from “old money,” Caroline is a Knickerbocker and the defender of the old guard. It is critically important to hold the line against “new money,” those who have made their fortunes in railroads, oil, etc. The worst of the new-money encroachers are the Vanderbilts. 

Mrs. Astor’s claim to fame is as a hostess. The goal of every wealthy woman in New York is to receive an invitation to one of her parties. The surest way to find yourself excluded from her company is to hobnob with the nouveau riche. Mrs. Astor is like a Gilded Age mean girl, and everyone wants to be in her clique.

But it’s lonely at the top. Mr. Astor spends his time on his yacht or at his club. Or pursuing one of his many affairs. Mrs. Astor’s children are grown and have different values: they want to marry for love not for purposes of buttressing the fortress of Knickerbocker society. And her loyal minions are too intrigued by what’s going on over at Alva Vanderbilt’s place.

Alva Vanderbilt has a reasonably good Southern pedigree, but her family has fallen on hard times. When she snares Willie Vanderbilt, one of the multi-millionaire grandsons of the railroad tycoon, she thinks she’s arrived. But no. Wealth alone is not enough to gain the family entrance to the correct parties. Alva refuses to take no for an answer and embarks upon a frontal assault, determined to snatch away Mrs. Astor’s crown.

The novel explores the struggle in chapters that alternate between the points of view of each of the women. There are intervening chapters voiced by “Society,” a Greek chorus of the combined voices of gossipy women on the fringes of the battle. Caroline and Alva are humanized. It’s possible to see why ruling society is so important—they have no other outlet. Men rule the business world, the political world, the financial world, even the sporting world. Men are permitted affairs. Women throw parties. At most, they support charities, but even this seems to be a way to maneuver in society.

The case made by the novel is that these women, by virtue of their high profiles, were able to break new ground. Alva hires Richard Morris Hunt and builds mansions. Caroline builds the Astoria hotel. In her later life, Alva divorced her husband and remarried. In a time when divorce was unheard of and would lead to immediate ostracism (for the wife), Alva was able to reclaim her position. She also became a supporter of women’s suffrage.

The book is engrossing. The life stories of Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt are fascinating. And yet… there is something unsatisfying in reading about the lives of these people of vast wealth who devoted themselves to social climbing or to kicking other climbers off the ladder. The wealth was accumulated through exploitation, but, naturally, they take no notice of this. And their pursuits were largely trivial. Their marriages were unhappy. Their families were dysfunctional. They seem more to be pitied than admired.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The world does not need another review of Malibu Rising, the latest blockbuster novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Nevertheless, as a devoted fan of Reid’s work, I’m throwing this one out there.

The story focuses on the run-up to the annual Malibu party thrown by Nina Riva, a swimwear model and surfer known for her pin-up calendars and posters, as well as for being the daughter of Mick Riva, a superstar singer (who abandoned Nina and her three siblings without a backward glance when they were children.) After the death of their mother (actually, even before that), Nina raised her siblings. Her brother Hud is a sports photographer whose main subject is her other brother Jay, a rising star in the surfing world. Kit, the baby of the family, is just twenty, also a superb surfer, just coming into her own.

Nina is not looking forward to the party. She was just dumped by her tennis pro husband. (Absurdly handsome, wealthy, and winner of numerous grand slams, he ran off with another tennis player. It made all the gossip news, humiliating Nina.)

The close-knit siblings have always relied heavily on Nina, but things are reaching a breaking point. Each of the siblings has secrets gnawing at them, and Nina can’t fix them all. When the party—a drunken, drug-fueled, sex-saturated free-for-all—gets out of hand, it may be the signal that it’s time for radical change for the Rivas.

The novel is fast-paced and angst-packed. The ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ vibe is reminiscent of Daisy Jones, as is the theme of rampant infidelity and its devastating aftermath. The main characters are mostly sympathetic. Even the worst of them is not all bad, though Mick Riva, blaming his narcissism on his own poor upbringing, is pretty close to being all bad. If you’re looking for a quick beach read with an emotional punch, pick up Malibu Rising.