Thursday, April 27, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Georgiana by Maude Hutchins

Having enjoyed Victorine by Maude Hutchins, I found her first novel, Georgiana, in the library. This one was a bit trickier.

Georgiana reads as if it was a novelized effort to showcase the theories of Freud. Georgiana is an orphaned girl living with her nearly invisible but sweet grandmother and her overbearing, dictatorial grandfather (referred to always in the French, Grandpère.) There are other aunts and many cousins in the household, but, oddly, no uncles. The grandfather is a New England gentleman. Georgiana’s dead father, who she knows only by a single photograph and by her grandfather’s disapproval of him, was a Virginian. The whole family is blue-eyed, except for Georgiana and her father, who are brown-eyed.

The story is related by a third-person male narrator who plays no role in the story. He goes to great effort, in very lush prose, to show the near-incestuous relationships and sexual hangups of the enclave of cousins. Georgiana is an outsider, though her blond-haired blue-eyed older sister is not. The narrator explains Georgiana’s pubertal angst.

The story then shifts for part 2, in which we are given excerpts from Georgiana’s diary while she is away at boarding school. This is in Georgiana’s voice – an oddly detached voice. She observes the little games the other girls play. She delights in mischief-making. She is very bright and very pretty. But she does not shed her innocence, managing always to see the actions of the others without understanding the sexual undercurrents.

In the final section, the third-person narrator returns. He explains that Georgiana, in her adult life, moves from one affair to another. He describes two of these relationships as examples, showing how she self-sabotages. And he explains how she is always seeking her father. Or, actually, her grandfather. 

The writing is lovely, but it is a labored effort. Georgiana comes to life, somewhat, in the mid-section. This is actually the part I found most interesting for its insight into life at a girls’ boarding school. The other sections fail to make Georgiana seem like a real person. It seems rather like an academic exercise, trying to use fiction to illustrate Freud. In this way, the effort is dated.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Match Made in London by Michelle Willingham

A Match Made in London by Michelle Willingham is the first book in a new Regency Romance series, The School for Spinsters.

Mrs. Harding, a one-time abused wife but now determined widow, runs a school for ladies who fear they will never win husbands. They come to her wanting to know how to be beautiful and popular, but she teaches them self-reliance and self-confidence. At the same time, her good friend Mr. Gregor, who moves about easily in society while hiding his true self (he is gay), scopes out potential prospects for the young ladies.

Violet Edwards is desperately in need of the school. She has little dowry, an evil mother who insults her constantly, and, worst of all, a stutter. She has always wanted a husband but now she needs one. Her mother is sending her off to the country to live with and care for her grandmother, a nasty woman who once threatened to beat the stutter out of her. So Violet sneaks off to see Mrs. Harding.

Damian Everett, the Earl of Scarsdale, is in a bind. His father, the marquess, has gambled and drank away the family fortune. If Damian doesn’t wed an heiress (the narcissistic Lady Penelope), there will be no money to bring out his sisters. He despises Penelope, but he loves his sisters and sees no other way out.

Mrs. Harding and Mr.Gregor concoct a plan to stiffen Violet’s spine. Aside from singing lessons (to help with the stutter), dancing lessons, and new clothes, they hire Damian to provoke her. The hundred pounds he is offered won’t solve anything, but it will help keep some of the noisier creditors temporarily at bay. He reluctantly accepts.

What follows is a “My Fair Lady”- type transformation as Violet climbs out of her shell and learns to fight back. Damian, too, learns to take control of his own Fate. 

This is an entertaining start to this new moderately steamy series. The protagonists are delightful. Mrs. Harding and Mr. Gregor are intriguing. The villains are one-dimensional but serve the purpose, and at least one of them shows possibility for redemption – maybe in book two?

Monday, April 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood

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

The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood is a lush re-imagining of the Greek myth of Perseus and the slaying of Medusa. The story is centered on Perseus but comes at the story from the perspective of the three women who shaped him: his mother, Danae; his wife, Andromeda; and his victim, Medusa.

Danae is a princess of Argos. When her father hears a prophecy declaring that Danae’s son will be the death of him, he locks her away to keep her from ever marrying. Mythology would have it that Zeus impregnated her. But in this novel it was a local young man who found a way to sneak into her prison. Furious and terrified when he learns she is pregnant, Danae’s father attempts to have her killed by putting her in a small boat and setting it adrift. Danae is rescued – and Perseus is born.

Medusa is a member of a small tribe of women, the Gorgons, who have been abused by men and sought refuge away from the world that leaves women powerless. They are self-sufficient and content. Snakes are their guardians. Medusa is not a monster. She is simply one of the most highly regarded among the women. But one day, the 18-year-old Perseus, desperate to prove himself a man, comes across the women.

Andromeda is the youngest daughter of a wealthy nomad. Just before she is to be wed to a kind local man, a sandstorm blows up. The priest says the gods are angry. To appease the god, Andromeda offers herself. She is to be lashed to the rocks on the seaside for a night and a day. The winds are already slowing when Perseus spots her from the ship he is on. He “rescues” her against her will.

The novel shows Perseus in a very different light than the old myths. Far from heroic, he is an insecure, boastful coward who constructs his own untrue story after demonizing Medusa and forcing his will upon women whose own wishes he ignores. Heywood does a wonderful job of showing Perseus’ own trauma, so that he is not a one-dimensional villain. Nevertheless, it is the women who are heroic in this tale.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Victorine by Maude Hutchins

Maude Hutchins (Maude Phelps McVeigh Hutchins) was an early-mid twentieth century artist turned writer who is, or was at the time, better known for being the neurotic wife of Robert Maynard Hutchins. This man was famous for being the young and formidable president of the University of Chicago.

Maude is associated with the “nouveau roman” movement and her novels and short stories were seen as scandalous. One of the best of these is Victorine.

is an odd but lovely short book that is essentially a story of a girl coming of age, or awakening to her sexual but still innocent self. She is thirteen. All her senses are alive and buzzing, but confusedly. She has a sixteen-year-old brother and their infatuation with one another (which terrifies them both) runs as an undercurrent throughout. Her father is aloof to the point of being an automaton. Everyone but Victorine’s mother, Allison, understands that he is a serial adulterer. Allison is oblivious. The children are left with no moral guidance except the vague mores of their social class and the mystical, not quite applicable, dictates of the church.

The story takes us through the next couple years, essentially through Victorine’s puberty. She has an active imagination with experiences that veer into magical realism. She fantasizes about sex while trying to block it from her mind and dabbles in innocent experimentation. The novel brushes up against enough taboos to make it uncomfortable. Yet the lyrical writing layers on reassurances that no boundaries are crossed. 

By the novel’s end, the reader feels she understands these strange characters, and they come to seem more real than bizarre. I’m curious enough about this writer to read more of her work if I can chase it down.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley

 Jane Smiley’s most recent novel is A Dangerous Business

The backstory: Eliza was given to Peter Cargill, a man twice her age, by parents concerned she was interested in a young Irish Catholic. Peter packed her up, took her away from her home in Kalamazoo, and moved to Monterey. This was in the mid 1850s and he thought he would make his fortune in California. He was cruel and violent, used her as a servant, and, fortunately for Eliza, was soon killed in a bar fight.

The story: Relieved to be free of him, the still very young Eliza is approached by Mrs. Parks, one of the local brothel owners. Curious and in need of funds, Eliza takes up a career as a prostitute. She finds the job suits her well. The madam is kind, fair, and does all she can to keep the women safe. The men, for the most part, are no trouble. Certainly better than Peter was.

Mrs. Parks discourages friendships between her employees to ward off gossiping. But one day, Eliza meets a prostitute from a different establishment, one that caters to women. Jean impresses Eliza with her independence. Jean changes identities easily, from female to male, young to old. For the first time in her life, Eliza has a friend. 

The two start spending time together and discover a mutual enjoyment of the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe. When two other local prostitutes disappear and no one seems to care, Eliza and Jean investigate on their own.

Eliza had been a fairly uncomplicated, trusting person. Now she begins to suspect everyone. She evaluates her customers in a different light. It’s fascinating watching her growth as she struggles between her natural instincts of kindness and trust and her newly burgeoning caution and suspicion. But as she opens her eyes, she also opens her heart. The reader is carried along as Eliza and Jean set a trap to catch the murderer, whoever it may be.

For all this, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace. The narrative voice kept me at a distance. I was interested in the whodunnit, but not wholly drawn in to the story.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady Knows Best by Susanna Craig

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

The Lady Knows Best by Susanna Craig is a new release that is the start of a new Regency Romance series: Goode’s Guide to Misconduct.

Daphne Burke is a sensible young woman who suffers a bit from middle child syndrome. Her large family is peopled by originals and she is left feeling ordinary. But she gets her chance to shine, albeit anonymously, when she stumbles upon a meeting of the staff of a new sensational publication, Mrs. Goode’s Magazine for Misses. Its intended purpose is to inspire women to think for themselves and be more independent. Daphne is all for that. And when she is invited to write an advice column, she dives right in. The first letter she answers is from a young lady who must marry a rake but doesn’t want to. She’s certain he is unfaithful and knows the only reason he proposed is to win a bet. Daphne’s advice is simple. Don’t marry him.

It turns out the rake is Miles, Viscount Deveraux. He did make an impetuous bet that he would be married by the end of the month. Knowing his reputation, his friends all bet against him. Now he’s even more determined to marry. Miles’ reasons are deeper than he lets on; it’s not just pride and/or money spurring his drive to win the bet. Still, he is guilty of pretty much everything that is said about him in London.

Miles discovers that it was Daphne who wrote the advice column that will lose him the bet. Since she is desperate to keep her identity a secret, and he is desperate to win that bet, he extracts from her an agreement to marry. But she wants him to woo her to make it convincing.

So, the fake courtship. Except that Miles doesn’t realize it’s fake. He feels guilty for blackmailing her, but thinks he can win her over. She, on the other hand, is using the opportunity to study the behavior of a “rake” in order to write an essay for the magazine to warn other young women what to guard against.

It’s no surprise that over the course of the wooing, they fall in love. They come to appreciate one another’s strengths and understand one another’s weaknesses. They also discover an intense physical attraction that they indulge. Fans of moderately steamy romance will find all the usual elements of slow-build seduction. But there is more to the development of the relationship than sex.

There remains the essay for Daphne to complete. And the bet to be won. And this conflict keeps the story interesting until its happily ever after.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: How Not to Marry a Duke by Tina Gabrielle

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

This entertaining (I read it in a single day) new Regency Romance, How Not to Marry a Duke by Tina Gabrielle, utilizes the fake courtship trope.

Daniel Millstone, the Duke of Warwick, has retreated to one of his properties, a small country manor, to get some work done. It’s the height of the Season and he really should be doing his ducal duty by finding a wife and siring an heir. But his interest lies elsewhere – with his inventions and tinkering with the inventions of others. 

Lady Adeline Cameron is his new neighbor. The half-sister of the Earl of Foster, an old nemesis of Warwick’s, Adeline has moved into a cottage deeded to her by her father. The cottage is in need of repair, but Adeline is determined to make the best of it. She is a skilled healer and wants to devote her talents to helping the villagers. She also wants to escape from Foster’s machinations. He is in debt to a moneylender who will forgive the debt in exchange for her hand in marriage.

Warwick and Adeline meet when he comes to complain about her noisy dogs. The mutual physical attraction is instantaneous, but between Warwick’s complaints and Adeline’s defensiveness, they find one another annoying. Nevertheless, when Warwick sees Adeline being threatened by Foster, he announces that she will not marry the moneylender because he is courting her.

Later, the two cook up a plan to pretend to be courting until the end of the Season. The moneylender will give up and marry another girl. And Warwick will have a reprieve allowing him to work and avoid marrying for another year. However, they have to convince the ton, particularly Adeline’s stepbrother and Warwick’s godmother, that the courtship is real.

Warwick and Adeline are not old-style typical hero and heroine. Warwick’s scientific endeavors and Adeline’s medical skills and non-aristocratic parentage (her father was an earl but her mother was the daughter of an Arabic rug merchant) make them unusual in the eyes of society.

Of course, during the course of the pretend courtship, they will fall in love. The course that this romance takes and the chemistry between them makes this story work. The requisite sex scenes, typical heat-level for the genre, are held until the later parts of the book.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Good Town by Mary Louise Wells

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

Good Town by Mary Louise Wells is a beautiful and important WWII novel. There are no spies or resistance fighters or code breakers. This is a novel about the regular people – the people too many of us would have been. When faced with a slow creeping danger, self-preservation and protection of our loved ones is naturally a first concern. Looking the other way is a slippery slope. But as the old saying goes: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This novel shows evil triumphing and how safety under those conditions is only an illusion.

Josef Haupt is a good man. He is a wealthy, successful farmer in Guttstadt, East Prussia. A devoted, God-fearing Catholic. Father of eight. Respected by his neighbors and the people in town. But when the Nazis begin to infiltrate Guttstadt, Josef goes along to get along. He makes the mistake of speaking to an old Jewish friend in a very public way and is hauled off by the Gestapo where he is threatened with imprisonment if he does not get on board with the Nazi agenda. First, he has to become an agricultural overseer for the region. Eventually, he is coerced into joining the party. Little by little, although he never agrees with what is going on, he finds himself coopted by the party machinery. It is the only way to keep his family “safe.” All four of his sons end up fighting for Hitler.

Margarete is Josef’s eldest daughter. She is nine years old at the time the book begins but close to twenty by its end. She is witness to and victim of all the horrors of the war and its aftermath. Strong, intelligent, and resilient, Margarete doesn’t understand much of what is happening at first, but slowly becomes aware of what the Nazi regime and the war mean for her family, friends, and Germany.

The book is based on the author’s own family lore. She brings the characters fully to life with sensitivity and honesty. It is well-researched, realistic, and emotionally gripping. This novel is highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Hold Fast by J.H. Gelerntner

Hold Fast by J.H. Gelerntner is a Regency Era (Napoleonic Wars) spy adventure novel. It’s also book one in the Thomas Grey series, so there is more adventure to come.

Thomas Grey is an agent in the king’s Secret Service. Or, he was. He has just resigned, after the shipboard death of his beloved wife, Paulette. They were returning from his posting in Malta when their ship was attacked by the French and she was killed by cannon shot. Unable to continue his work, Grey has decided to move to Boston and work for a lumber firm.

However, as he sets out, war with France resumes. After a short skirmish at sea, the ship Grey is on must put into Portugal. There, he is mistaken for a disaffected British navy man. Seeing his chance to exact revenge upon the French for killing his wife, specifically upon the captain of the French ship that fired the cannon shot, Grey takes it upon himself to work as a double-agent.

The novel is chock-full of action-adventure. Grey is a master of pretty much everything and invincible to boot. Nevertheless, suspend disbelief as when watching a James Bond movie and this book will thrill.

Monday, April 10, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Natural History by Andrea Barrett

A year ago, I read Andrea Barrett’s wonderful collection of interwoven short stories, Archangel. Her new collection, Natural History, is similar in style and content, combining rich character development with an eye for the beauty of the natural world. There are six stories. In one way or another, each incorporates Henrietta Atkins, an early twentieth century naturalist who taught school in a small town in northern New York state.

Henrietta leads a quiet life, but her influence nevertheless extends beyond the schoolroom into the lives of the inhabitants of her town and beyond. She chooses to remain single, but family is very important to her and she devotes much of her time to helping raise (and shape) her nieces. To some degree, this prevents her from making a name for herself in the larger world the way that her science-minded friend Daphne does. But Henrietta does not seem discontented with her choices. Her life is well-lived. People remember her. And women in succeeding generations echo her.

Woven into these short stories are explorations of science and technology, revealing the astounding changes that took place over this relatively short period of a few generations.

The characters are remarkably complex. The stories raise questions about their interactions and motivations. Some of these are answered but others are left for the reader to ponder.

Barrett is able to blend her fictional characters into real places and allows them to mingle with real historical figures. You’ll find yourself carried back to a time where the world was at the cusp of something new. A timeless heroine like Henrietta Atkins forms a bridge between old ideas and new ones. 

Friday, April 7, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Emilienne by Pamela Binnings Ewen

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

Set in Paris during the Belle Epoque, Emilienne by Pamela Binnings Ewen is the story of one of the great courtesans of the age, Emilienne d’Alençon.

It is a rags-to-riches story. Emilienne was born to a prostitute in Montmartre, but escapes by running away from her abusive mother to make a life for herself as a dancer with the top Parisian shows. One of the most beautiful women in Paris and an accomplished flirt, she loves to dance and thrives on the attention. Before long, she is maintaining her lifestyle by entertaining wealthy gentlemen.

Throughout most of the book, things come very easily to Emilienne. There is little apparent struggle and almost no conflict. The men are generous. The women are friendly and cooperate rather than compete. Emilienne rides high. She does experience a personal tragedy when a nobleman she is involved with is torn away by his controlling mother. But while she regrets this loss all her life, she moves on and rebuilds her career with no real difficulty.

It’s only in the later years, when her beauty is fading and she is no longer sought out by the dance halls, that her life begins to lose its luster. She needs to find a new way to live. Or at least a new man to love.

The setting is an interesting one. Emilienne is a real historical person and her life intersected with other high-flying Parisians of the times. However, the novel dances only lightly over Emilienne’s rise to fame and gives the impression that there was no hardship involved, except for some rare brief hunger pains. There is none of the expected grit. The story has a fairytale quality that made me wish for more depth.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild

I recently read a biography of William Wilberforce by Stephen Tomkins. Wilberforce is the revered nineteenth-century British MP who worked hard to end the slave trade. But I wanted to know more about the anti-slavery movement in England and more about the others involved.

Bury the Chains
by Adam Hochschild is a comprehensive study of the subject. It begins in 1787 with a group of twelve men meeting in a London printing shop and continues through the total abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in the summer of 1833. And then it goes on through the death of Thomas Clarkson, the last of the original twelve.

The book highlights the efforts of the enslaved as well, with chapters on the revolts in the French and British West Indies. It includes the attempts at settling freed slaves in a colony in Sierra Leone – right next to a slave-trading hub. 

Although Wilberforce is given his due, this book makes clear that he was only one of many. And, in fact, although his dedication to ending the slave trade never wavered, he was a proponent of very cautious, gradual change, believing in the supremacy of white aristocrats like himself. He was happy to give charity, but shuddered at the thought of equality.

The importance of women’s groups is also stressed, especially in progressing from ending the slave trade to abolishing slavery altogether.

It is a difficult book to read, both because of the large amount of information conveyed and because it so clearly demonstrates the cruelty, greed, and hypocrisy of those in charge. But it is well worth the effort.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Good Time Girls by K.T. Blakemore

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

The Good Time Girls by K.T. Blakemore is the first book in her new Wild-Willed Women of the West series.

Ruby Calhoun didn’t want to be an outlaw. She wanted to be Annie Oakley. But one bad marriage, two children left in the care of her sister, a stint as a performer (but not a prostitute) in a Wild West brothel /theater, and a failed stagecoach robbery have turned her into one. That and a troubled friendship with her partner, Pip Quinn. Pip likewise is haunted by a relationship with the wrong man. A very wrong man.

This rollicking novel told from Ruby’s viewpoint skips back and forth in time from current action, when Ruby and Pip are reunited, to four years earlier, when Ruby and Pip first meet. This format allows the story to unfold in a way that keeps the tension high in both timelines.

Ruby escaped an abusive marriage but ended up in a dead-end town where she managed to avoid prostitution by becoming a performer at the rinky-dink theater attached to the brothel. She attached herself to the star attraction, Pip. Unfortunately, Pip was in thrall to a gambler/charmer/abuser named Cullen Wilder. Not content with his power over Pip, he wanted control of the brothel as well. Leading to a disastrous turn of events.

Four years later, Ruby has paid her debt to society, but perhaps not her debt to Pip. Ruby owns a small cigar shop and hopes to lead a quiet, safe life. But that dream is laid to rest when Pip walks through the door. It seems Cullen has sent Pip his “calling card,” a death threat. Pip expects Ruby will also be getting a card. The two must join forces to find him, and kill him, before he finds them.

This is a voice-y, old-western adventure with plucky female protagonists — women driven to extremes by the limitations of their lives.