Sunday, February 27, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady Tempts an Heir by Harper St. George

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

Harper St. George’s latest historical romance is The Lady Tempts an Heir. Set in the Gilded Age, this series of novels deal with the new money Americans coming to England to buy titles for themselves (and their social climbing families.) I thoroughly enjoyed the first novel in the series, The Heiress Gets a Duke. I missed the second book but will have to come back to it. In those novels, the exceedingly wealthy Crenshaw sisters are married off to aristocrats after difficult courtships, finding love despite the initially mercenary arrangements.

This third book is interesting because it is the wealthy American son who is being coerced into marriage by his parents, particularly by his tyrannical tycoon father. Maxwell Crenshaw is also a fiercely ambitious businessman, poised to eventually take over the family business. However, he has a heart, and has already come to London twice to support his sisters when they are being forced to marry against their wills. Now he has returned because his father has had a heart attack. By the time he arrives, the father is recovering. But the father is more determined than ever to get Maxwell wed and breeding to ensure the continuation of the family line – to secure the Crenshaw Ironworks legacy. Maxwell would rather take his time and marry for love.

Lady Helena March is a young widow who has thrown herself into charitable works, most notably a home (with daycare) for unwed mothers and their children. She is a good friend of the Crenshaw sisters and had previously met Maxwell and been attracted to him. But now her father is pressuring her to wed again, to find a man to lend her some respectability, especially if she’s going to insist on associating with such undesirable elements. He is not above throwing his influence around to thwart her charity, sure that he is protecting her by doing so.

The older generation of men in these novels is really despicable. But the younger men are more forward thinking and make admirable heroes.

In order to get around the manipulations of both the fathers, Maxwell and Helena embark upon a pretend engagement, planning to cry off once their individual projects have enough momentum that the fathers can’t stop them. Of course, romance readers know how these “pretend engagement” scenarios work out. 

There is a lot of steam between Maxwell and Helena, but a lot of mutual support and admiration as well. This is a fun romance series that’s just a bit outside of the usual Regency Romance setting. This novel can stand alone. And the series can be read out of order, because that’s what I’m going to have to do!

Friday, February 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Earl on the Run by Jane Ashford

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

Jane Ashford writes such sweet Regency Romances. Earl on the Run is book 2 in The Duke’s Estates series. My favorite part of book one, The Duke Who Loved Me, was the quartet of young debutantes who kept a humorous running commentary on the state of the ton and the progress of that heroine’s courtship. Now it’s the turn of one of those debutantes, Harriet Finch, to find her true love.

Harriet is an heiress, suddenly. The grandfather who threw her mother out and harried her father into ruin decided to leave his money to her, provided she serve as his pawn, his entree into society. Grandfather Finch made his money in trade and is desperate to connect himself to the aristocracy. Harriet has no desire to marry for a title. However, her father is dead. And her destitute mother wants a “better” life for her daughter.

Jack Merrill’s story is similar. His father (heir to an earldom) fell in love with a commoner and was banished to America where he entered trade. Jack was perfectly content but was summoned back to England when he inherited his grandfather’s estates. He has no desire to be insulted by the titled, especially not by his haughty, cruel grandmother. So he takes off. Disappears. However, he is curious about the country estate he inherited, so he sneaks off to see it before deciding what to do next.

His country home borders that of the estate bought by Grandfather Finch.

Jack and Harriet meet wandering about the grounds. Neither knows anything about the other, so they are free to invent their personae, which really means they are free to be themselves. Before long, they have fallen in love.

This should be an easy one. The match is something everyone around them wants. They want it themselves. But they haven’t been honest with one another. And they don’t want to marry to please other people. To some extent, their obstacles are invented and could be solved by a good long chat. But they are interrupted at inopportune times. And they don’t entirely trust their own feelings.

The two are kind-hearted and loving. Their goals align. The happily-ever-after is assured once they decide to be honest with one another. They are helped along by none other than James and Cecelia from The Duke Who Loved Me (and it was fun seeing their return.) 

I’m eager to see who the next heroine in the series will be!

Monday, February 21, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies by Laura Thompson

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

Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies
by Laura Thompson is a newly-released book that, just as the title tells us, looks at the lives of heiresses. The women are either British or Americans who, for the most part, married into the English aristocracy. The book starts in the late 1600's with Mary Davies and goes through modern times, with Patty Hearst. The theme is that untold wealth is almost guaranteed to make a woman miserable (although rare heiresses are able to escape the burden of wealth, mainly through philanthropy.) It seems the misery stems from two main problems. First, when being defined by wealth, it is impossible for the women to ever feel loved for themselves. And second, boredom. What is there to do besides spend mindlessly when you have more money than you know what to do with?

They marry tragically, over and over again. They have affairs. They drink and take drugs. If they become mothers, they are terrible ones. 

A surprising number of them are kidnaped and forced into marriages. (I thought this was just an overused trope of Regency Romances. I had no idea it was so common!)

The book looks into the societal, legal, and political disadvantages that these women faced, particularly in earlier centuries. Once married, women had no legal identity. Their money was turned over to their husbands. Their children belonged to the husband. Even their own bodies belonged to their husbands. It’s horrifying. But even in the modern era, there are double standards and issues of consent that make it difficult for women born to gobs and gobs of money. (Also, nobody actually feels sorry for them!)

Heiresses is well written and well researched. The individual stories are interesting. But on the whole, the book didn’t engage me as much as I expected. The litany of miserable heiresses became draining and their stories started to run together, and then I felt guilty for starting to see them all generically. It did demonstrate that a good deal of progress has been made for women, but not yet enough.

Friday, February 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Odelia's Secret by Jane Steen

 I received this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review.

It has been a long wait since book 1 in the The Scott-de-Quincy Mysteries, Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen. In that book, readers are introduced to the heroine, Lady Helena, a young widow with a complicated, sprawling family. She believes her husband died in an accident, but it isn’t that clear-cut. An attractive, kind physician, Fortier, helps her to solve the mystery. In the process, she uncovers things about her family that she would have preferred not to know and a romance begins to bud.

In book 2, Lady Odelia’s Secret, it is now one year later, and Lady Helena is about to emerge from deep mourning. She has not seen Fortier in all that time. (He had to return to France to deal with some complicated, confidential family matters of his own.) She has spent the time quietly in the country home she inherited from her husband, adjusting to life as a wealthy widow. And then she is visited by her older sister Odelia.

Odelia is an artist and a free spirit. Helena has always adored and admired her, but never really known her. There is an eleven- or twelve-year age difference and Odelia spends nearly all her time in London at the family’s town home. (Their father was an earl. Their brother, Michael, prefers to live in the country with his wife and family, so the London home has pretty much been turned over to Odelia.) Odelia runs a rather lax household. She keeps her distance from her family for reasons that are about to become all too clear to Helena.

Odelia runs in bohemian artistic circles in London. She has an idea for a project for Helena, a chance to become a patron of the arts by commissioning a large work from one of the greatest painters of the day, Sir Geraint (a courtesy title.) A charismatic man of undeniable talent, he has an idea for a major piece that would fit perfectly in Helena’s home, improving her rather rundown drawing room. Intrigued by the idea and impressed with the man’s work, Helena decides to pursue the commission. Traveling to London with Odelia, Helena meets Geraint’s wife and adult children. Against her inclination, she becomes privy to their family woes, personal and financial. And she becomes embroiled in the scandal her sister has taken pains to conceal.

In London, Helena also finds Fortier once more. He has newly returned from France to care for his father, who is slowly dying of cancer. The attraction and admiration between the two grows even stronger. However, the time is still not right to pursue anything more than friendship. Fortier still has secrets of his own that he is only slowly revealing. The two are perfectly matched, both understanding the pressure of familial loyalty.

That theme of loyalty runs strong through both books. The books are mysteries. Crimes need to be solved. But the murder mystery unfolds slowly and is secondary to the true conflicts in Helena’s life. She was the baby of her large family and was always kept in the dark. She’s not a child any longer. She has a keen intelligence and a remarkable gift of compassion. It seems her family will have to come to rely more and more upon her as their secrets slowly come out. 

This book is wonderful. The author confidently immerses the reader in the setting. She doesn’t rush the story, but lets it unfold. The characters are not all likeable. In fact, this reader became exasperated with some of them. And that made Helena shine all the more. She empathizes even when she does not approve.

I think this book could stand alone. It’s been long enough since I read book 1 that the details are murky and weren’t needed to understand this story. However, I think to fully appreciate the family dynamics and to watch Helena’s personal growth, starting with book 1 is the best way to go.

And I will impatiently await book three.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Meddler by Kate Archer

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

Kate Archer has a new Regency Romance series: A Series of Worthy Young Ladies. I just finished book 1, The Meddler.

Six matrons of the ton bond over the shared disappointment of having no daughters. They have sons, but it’s not the same. They will never know the thrill of launching a daughter into society. So they come up with a plan to form The Society of Sponsoring Ladies. Each season, they will pick one worthy (meaning wellborn) girl whose family is unable to bring her out. A matron will sponsor the girl, provide her the clothes, the introductions, the chaperonage, and a suitable dowry, and the other ladies will support the effort. 

Lady Mendleton chooses the first girl–Georgina Wilcox, a very distant cousin who is the daughter of a baron. Unfortunately for Georgina, her father married a woman whose father was in trade. The mother is impossibly coarse, but the girl is said to be delightful. So the experiment proceeds.

Georgiana is a lovely heroine. She’s clever and beautiful. Unfortunately, she was raised in the country with very lax supervision and has none of the usual female accomplishments. Yet she adapts quickly to the requirements of the ton and is able to work around her supposed deficiencies. Mostly, she’s intelligent enough and grateful enough to her patron to know that Lady Mendleton’s son, Jasper Stapleton–Viscount Langley--is off limits. His sights are set much higher. But he’s so handsome, polite, kind, and has such an air of quiet competence about him, that naturally Georgiana falls for him.

Jasper has all those great Regency hero traits at the start. Also, he is a busy man. He works for Queen Charlotte as a spy of sorts. King George is incapacitated by madness. The Regent is despised. And the Queen is trying to hold the country together. This requires hiding the extent of the King’s madness. Jasper’s job is to keep the rumors tamped down. When gossipy reports appear in the newspapers, he must track down who is spreading them. And even more importantly, why.

A new rumor appears just after Georgiana is brought to London. The rumor is traced to the Mendleton household. Jasper decides Georgiana is a spy/troublemaker. But he likes her so much, he wants to prove that she isn’t. 

Georgiana shines. She remains clever and considerate throughout. Despite having fallen in love with Jasper, she tries to manage her expectations. She’s honest enough with herself to know that if her feelings are reciprocated, she won’t be strong enough to turn him down. (For marriage, not dalliance. This is clean romance.)

Jasper does not shine so much. Once he has fed himself the false narrative that she is a spy, although he doesn’t want to believe it, he misreads every clue and his confirmation bias kicks in. The real spy is clear as day pretty much from the beginning and Jasper starts to appear dense as he overlooks the obvious. Granted, the reader has the whole story and Jasper does not. But his position as the Queen’s confidante in this matter is hard to justify while watching his imagination run wild. He creates an elaborate fairy tale in order to implicate and then excuse Georgiana, in order that he might rescue her. (In Jasper’s favor, he has a biting sense of humor, though it mainly comes out when he’s disparaging the girl his mother wants him to court.)

The HEA ending is achieved, thanks to Georgiana’s bravery and loyalty. I expected her to be more affronted that Jasper had so little faith in her. He didn’t think she was a traitor intentionally, only a pawn. But Georgiana wastes no time being miffed. 

If all the “Worthy Young Ladies” are as delightful as Georgiana, this new series is certainly one to follow. But I do hope their heroes are cleverer than Jasper turned out to be.

Friday, February 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor

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

I saw the blurb for Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor and couldn’t resist – a retelling of The Great Gatsby from the women’s perspective. The original story is familiar to me both from the book and the movies. It’s a beautiful classic, of course, but it’s also vaguely unsatisfying, possibly because all the characters are so dissatisfied. 

Beautiful Little Fools
does away with Nick Carraway’s narration, turning him into a very peripheral character. Instead, we get a deep dive into the hearts of the female protagonists, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. A third woman, Catherine McCoy, a minor character in the original, is now also a main character — a third woman’s voice. Catherine is the sister of Myrtle (the woman who is tragically killed in The Great Gatsby.) The novel alternates among the three points of view to show what truly led up to the events of Gatsby, and (equally riveting) what happened after. 

A fourth viewpoint character, Detective Frank Charles, is the one decent man in the whole book. He’s attempting to solve the mystery of who really killed Jay Gatsby, even though the police have closed the case as a murder-suicide. His digging for truth is the impetus for the story.

This is a murder mystery embedded in multiple love stories. Are the characters still dissatisfied? Yes. A happily-ever-after ending would not have been true to the original. But the loves in this book — the loves of the women — are far deeper and truer than those in Gatsby, which dealt more with obsession and male-female power dynamics than love.

I tried to imagine if this book could stand alone for those who haven’t read or seen the original, but it’s impossible for me to come to this book “naive.” I expect it will still be absorbing for those who don’t know the Gatsby story. It would certainly make me want to read the original. It might be fun for someone unaware of the plot of The Great Gatsby to read this first and then compare. Either way, this book is not to be missed.

Monday, February 7, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant

The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant is our book group’s next pick. It isn’t my usual type of read. It’s a journalistic travelogue, sort of a memoir of a place rather than a person. Grant has a talent for choosing absorbing anecdotes and reporting bits of dialogue that are wryly amusing, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Grant stumbled upon the Mississippi river town after meeting the Natchez native, cookbook author, and restauranteur Regina Charboneau at a book festival. She invited him to come visit. He did, and became fascinated by what he found. In Natchez, they kick the “Southern eccentricity” up a notch.

The town’s main industry is tourism. Once one of the wealthiest places in the South, the town is riddled with old Greek revival mansions/plantations. Upkeep on the buildings is expensive. So years ago, around the time of the publication of Gone With the Wind, the matriarchs of the town got the idea that they could charge tourists for an old South experience. The women dressed up in hoopskirts, served food and plenty of alcohol, and “received” outsiders into their homes. They called it the “Pilgrimage” and capped it with a bizarre theatrical production. At the end of the run, they would have a big party and present a “king and queen,” kids in their late teens or early twenties. The event took on a ridiculously outsized importance in the social and economic life of the town. 

Naturally, the fact that all the original wealth was based on slave labor was never mentioned by the participants. The people had “servants.” And all the usual rationalizations were trotted out.

Alongside the saga of the Pilgrimage and the two warring Garden Clubs that sponsor the event, Grant tells the story of one of the enslaved men, a man called Prince. He had been an African prince and war-leader until his army was defeated and the survivors were sold to slave traders. He worked on a Natchez plantation most of his life, until a weird coincidence brought him into contact with a white man who had known him in his previous life. That man started the ball rolling to get Prince freed and allow him to return to Africa.

The book is interesting and well-written. To fully appreciate the bizarreness of some of the anecdotes, you have to read the book. It presents many of the issues of overt and structural racism in a small town microcosm. It shows the small rays of progress. But also highlights how intractable the problems are.

Friday, February 4, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart

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

The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart is exquisite. The details of daily life for these Depression Era, hard-working, down-on-their-luck Southerners makes this novel come alive. It isn’t necessarily a life I wanted to immerse myself in. The cruelty, racism, and sexual exploitation that these itinerant farm workers and turpentine extractors had to endure made for unpleasant reading to say the least. But the writing was beautiful. The descriptions were so realistic I thought the author must have experienced some of the work, not only researched it.

Delwood Reese is a good-looking young man who was raised farming and working trees for turpentine. Now he’s on his own, getting work where he can. But he has the bad habit of sleeping with other men’s wives. When his boss catches him at it, he puts him into the grain bin to “walk down the corn” – pretty much an execution – that almost succeeds. Del takes off and ends up at the Swallow Hill Turpentine camp.

Rae Lynn Cobb is a beautiful young woman, raised in an orphanage, who married an older man with a small-scale turpentine operation. They love each other in a way, but he’s stubborn about things, tight with money, and clumsy/accident prone. That last flaw causes Rae Lynn a few injuries as well. Tragedy strikes when a poor decision leads to his drawn-out, painful death. Rae Lynn gets chased off the place by a predatory male. And she ends up at Swallow Hill too.

Things go from bleak to bleaker. The work is back-breaking. Workers are paid in worthless scrip and have to buy necessities at the company store, so the longer they work, the more in debt they are. The men in the largely Black workforce are treated worse than animals. The boss is a homicidal sadist.

Thankfully, there are little bits of sunshine. Del’s near-death experience has changed him. He’s a better man and he looks out for others. Including Rae Lynn.

Ultimately, this is a hopeful book. A great read for when you’re looking for some hopefulness.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

 Anne Tyler’s books are always fun. 

Redhead by the Side of the Road takes us along for the ride as Micah Mortimer, a 40-something self-employed IT guy (Tech Hermit) sorts out his life. He likes his life fairly rigidly controlled, blaming a chaotic upbringing for his neat-freakishness and adherence to schedules. His customers love him and he likes his job as long as he can be his own boss. He is also the manager/super of his apartment building in exchange for free rent. He has a girlfriend, a 30-something fourth-grade teacher. Things are stable.

Until his girlfriend calls and tells him she’s going to be evicted from her apartment. He handles that news all wrong. And then a college kid shows up at his house, claiming to be his son. His mother was Micah’s college sweetheart, his first true love. But there is no way this boy is his son.

Micah trods along, trying to do the right thing, coming close but often just missing the mark. He has to reevaluate his own life, and his own shortcomings, to find out what it is he truly values and truly needs.

As always, Tyler’s characters are quirky but relatable. Her storytelling is wonderful. It’s a quick read and hard to put down.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Argo by Mark Knowles

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

I’ve read quite a few retellings of myths and legends over the years, and I’ve heard of Jason and the Argonauts and knew bits of the story. But I’ve never read a novel focused on Jason, so I was interested in this retelling, Argo by Mark Knowles. Knowles is a Cambridge classicist, who clearly knows the story well.

Unfortunately, this was rather a slog to get through. It’s a very detailed narration of the adventures of the Argonauts on their way to Colchis to steal the Golden Fleece. Despite the dangers and numerous battles, and despite the fact that many of the individual scenes are interesting, on the whole, the book dragged.

In a nutshell, Jason was challenged (by his uncle, who had usurped Jason’s father’s throne) to go steal the fleece in order to win his parents’ freedom. The challenge is meant to be a fool’s errand that will rid the usurper of the upstart challenger. Jason gathers together a motley crew of quarrelsome misfits, who somehow are able to defeat various armies along the way. The Argonauts band together, more or less, when they have to fight, but never form a cohesive unit. Rather than reading as a focused journey, with a cumulative rise in tension, the adventures seem rather aimless random bumps in the road as they wander their way to Colchis.

Jason is a weak leader, though he is a strong fighter. Aside from Jason’s self-doubts, there isn’t much depth to the characters. When Jason finally meets Medea, she morphs too quickly from a witch-like goddess worshiper who despises men and terrifies the suitors her father pushes at her into a sexy young girl who melts for Jason. 

Although tempted numerous times to give up on the read, I nevertheless pushed through to the end. I was curious to learn about Jason’s saga as a whole. So it was especially frustrating to read 566 pages and reach the point where Jason finally steals the Golden Fleece, only to have the book end with “to be continued.” They haven’t even completed an escape from Colchis. Although I admire the scholarship behind the effort, it didn’t engage me as a novel.