Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Review of A River in Time

A River in Time by Deborah Courville

One of the things I like about reading novels by history enthusiasts is the energy they channel into their writing. Deborah Courville, a docent a The Oldest House, and author of A River in Time, is no exception. Right off, I could tell she enjoyed exploring The Oldest House’s history, and as a charitable novella*, this absolutely works because the target audience is those who’ve visited. But I haven’t stepped foot into the ‘living museum’ in Laceyville, Pennsylvania, and prior to reading purposely didn’t Google a darned thing because I wanted to test out whether or not the story would quell my interest. I’m pleased to say it did, for whether or not you pick up this book in Pennsylvania or on Amazon, the story is sweet and charming.

A River in Time is essentially an American time travel novella circa present day and 1795. Like Courville, Izzy, the heroine, is a volunteer at The Oldest House, except she has the misfortune (or perhaps fortune) to travel back to 1795. With the ability to think quickly on her feet, Izzy assumes the identity of Countess Isabeau de Villehardouin, an actual relative of hers who lived in the 18th century, but unlike the real countess, Izzy is pretty clueless on how to deal with 18th century life. Luckily, Izzy time traveled under an oak tree at The Oldest House and into the hospitality of the Sturdevants, possibly the nicest family in Laceyville. Without family back in the 21st century, it’s not long before Izzy begins to find a place within the gentle Sturdevants. Joshua, a law student mentored by a colleague of Thomas Jefferson’s and brother to the friendly couple living at the house, takes a fancy to Izzy. Their romance is rather sweet. Guided by a balance of his forward-thinking and Izzy’s modern sensibilities, their unintended courtship presents the main conflict in the tale beyond the time traveling snafu.

Since A River in Time is a 148 pages, which straddles the lines between novel and novella, I expected a fast pace of events, but once Izzy realizes her conflict–return to her time or possibly stay in 1795–her whole thought process felt whirlwind.  In the author’s defense, love is kinda like that, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a little bit missing.  Joshua’s turnabout acceptance of his time traveling lady also seemed a bit sudden, but I honestly think this about 99% of time traveling novels and I did enjoy Courville’s explanation of how Joshua came to understand what would have been a mind blowing notion before television and Google.  Given his character, it made sense, and I like sense.  By the novella’s end, much like Izzy I got hooked on the family and found my interest in The Oldest House sufficiently fanned. I imagine a visit, with the perspective from the novella, would make it an absolute historical delight.

Recommended to lovers of small town 18th century American history, fans of sweet family romances, and anybody who thinks time travel to 1795 America might just be awesome.  Book benefactors take note: *Proceeds from A River in Time are donated to The Oldest House in Laceyville, PA for its upkeep and repair.

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A Review of ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’

How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore

Thomas Day is the ultimate 18th century misogynist.  He was also an abolitionist, philanthropist, Rousseau obsessive, and a famous children’s writer, but let’s get one thing straight: he was a complete tool.  He expected in a wife more than the average Georgian male desired in every paragon of womanhood he could possibly meet.  Instead of virtue and social poise, he wanted a precise definition of perfection, and despite chancing on the only woman in the world who could give it to him, he was never satisfied with her.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  As Wendy Moore recounts in her delightful book, ‘How to Create The Perfect Wife,’ Thomas Day’s adventure begins with a harebrained idea, borne of dejection after a disastrous betrothal, to mold a child into his future wife.  He wanted his Sophie, the virtuous, frugal, and faithfully abiding wife to Rousseau’s Emile, and like Moore suggests, set about recreating Pygmalion’s Galatea.

Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion and Galatea by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy Trioson (1819)

To accomplish his task, Day and a friend travel to a foundling hospital, select two sprightly candidates, Sabrina and Lucretia, and inform them of a future apprenticeship, kindly leaving out the true facts of the matter.  Day then concocts an educational program and, after a year, chooses Sabrina, the superior-minded and better behaved of the two girls, to be his future wife.  What follows is a hardening process in order to prepare Sabrina for asceticism which, in Day’s estimation, means a departure from fashionable society in order to live a life of scarcity.  His process is nothing short of psychological torture, freezing Sabrina, shooting at her, and generally wobbling the poor girl’s wits until she cracks.

Eventually, perhaps recognizing her imminent peril, Sabrina commits a willful indiscretion.  However minor, it signals a connubial death knell to Thomas Day and he casts her aside.   Most amazing about Sabrina’s ordeal is that the experiment wasn’t exactly commenced in secret.  A number of well-to-do Georgians witnessed Day’s attempt to carve an ideal from flesh and never made a peep.  So much for the Age of Enlightenment.  If there is a major pitfall among Georgian intellectuals in this story, it is the emotional detritus created by a strict adherence to logic and thus, the entire abandonment of heart for mind.

Thomas Day by Joseph Wright 1770

Thomas Day by Joseph Wright (1770)

Sabrina was just one casualty of the movement, though Day would argue any future with him was an improvement upon what the foundling hospital could provide.  ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ leaves readers to agree or disagree on that point, but Moore’s dry wit in portraying Day is undeniable.  For all that Day is exasperating in his treatment of women, he’s a fascinating fellow.  Through Day’s misadventures, Moore captures a philosophical culture that even its father, Rousseau, found lacking beyond theoretical bounds.  ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ is as compelling a social history as it is an arousing biography of an unusual man and for Georgian enthusiasts, it’s a must read.

Review of ‘Vicious’, Plus an Interview with the Author Patricia Beykrat

Vicious by Patricia Beykrat

I’d like to introduce you guys to the author of this gorgeous looking novella, ‘Vicious’.  Her name’s Patricia Beykrat, whom you may know as the blogger Madame de Pique.  Her novella is being released today (congratulations, Patricia!) and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book.  So here, for your delectation, is the interview, followed by my review of ‘Vicious: A Confession’, and lastly, the official book description.

Interview with the author

1. The setting for Vicious is the decadent Rome of nightclubs, 5 star hotels, upscale cars and country villas.  Which atmospheric qualities prompted you to choose this setting over other playgrounds of the rich?  Have you been to Rome yourself?
For a moribund character like Dante, Rome’s climate of eternity makes an irrefutable oxymoron to give prominence to his eventual death and actually reflect the inherent longing for immortality that more or less provoked it. Though I’ve never even set foot on Italian land, the idea of such a setting came natural to me after a period dedicated to musings which had my thoughts coagulate into coherent plans. There’s just something about Roman lifestyle as I encountered it in novels and memoirs, something so brisk and pensive, so full of vivid contrasts, that I was irrevocably convinced Dante would not gain verity in any other background. Call it a mere conjecture, but despite the city being scarcely depicted throughout ‘Vicious’, I felt mentions of it added a lot to the overall atmosphere. So Rome became a necessary presence.
2. Antiheroes are one of my favorite types of heroes and I think they can be harder to write than a moralistic, if flawed, hero.  Likeability factor is an issue, though I’m not sure Dante’s concerned with perception: he fully expects to be worshiped.  As the author, were you concerned readers wouldn’t like him in the conventional sense?  Or is he above this petty need because he considers himself superior?  
Dante’s what I see as the potential of all humankind for a plethora of reasons. He’s, to say, exponential for most men in the given circumstances, though his confessions are not meant to reassemble any ordinary ones while still succeeding to sound familiar. I projected him to incorporate a concept-being readers could abhor, hate or misunderstand at their own will but who could nonetheless exert some fascination. To what extent I fulfilled my goal only the audience can decide.
3. At his essence, Dante is an hedonic egoist.  Although he has no supernatural abilities, he reminded me of a Lestat or a Lucifer, a fallen angel who likens himself to a golden god. Except, unlike those characters, he has to deal with the trappings of mortality. What inspired you to write his story?
At the time ‘Vicious’ emerged as a distinct project, I had long been flirting with the idea of creating a character who can incorporate wealth, brilliance, beauty and tragedy in a less common manner. It was merely a matter of proper words to set it in a visible form and my ideal voice of a smart histrionic hero with an incurable penchant for drama developed a tone.

My Review of ‘Vicious’

The bucket list, the words pride or ignorance never allowed you to say, the cliched desiderata preceding THE END—these are a comfort to the dying.  But for Dante Serafino, a self-described “paradigm of the mythological narcissist,” comfort lies elsewhere.

As an hedonic ideal, he is a Byronic antihero, as primitive as he is urbane.  He is also infinitely superior to the lambs who smugly abide by social order; lambs, he later points out, who experience the chemical high of watching the modern day sinners of Gomorrah fall down.  And who, Dante begins to suggest, is immoral ?

The thing is though, Dante’s journey has very little to do with immorality because at the heart of ‘Vicious’ is deeper tangle: immortality in immorality versus mortality in morality.  Put simply: if you’re alive, you must dare to live in whichever manner ameliorates your inevitability.  Or at least that’s integral to Dante’s argument.  The account proffered is his alone, intimate and self-satisfied.  From his taunting introduction, the reader is invited to follow the exploits, past and present, leading to his last hurrah.  It is a story of spiraling, the bisexual playboy and young financial wunderkind forced to contemplate his existence when I suspect he’d rather be partying.  It’s Dante’s in memorium of the self.

By the end of his tale, you might not like him, you might even loathe him, but his uncommonness transfixes.  And liking him would be beside the point.  It’s the singularity of voice that makes ‘Vicious’ a riveting morsel of novella.  After journeying with him, I was eager to see how he’d bow out, and Ms. Beykrat did not disappoint. ‘Vicious’ has a raw quality about it; imbued within is an ability to both attract and repel a reader. As a psychological thriller, it focuses on the age-old theme of man against self. And perhaps man for himself. I definitely recommend it for readers who enjoy antiheroes, intimate narratives predominated by self-reflection, and dark themes.  If that sounds like your kind of thing . . .

Vicious is available at the following retailers:

Amazon

Smashwords

Book Description

Dante blames his qualities for his flaws, envisions himself as a child of vice and plunges into a spiral of sex and alcohol (because humans are “so predictably clichéd”) only to forget he was willing to sacrifice everything for them. Young, rich and a prodigious genius, with a penchant for luxury… he ultimately dies, not before delivering his swan-song, a story of decay, sensuality and self-destruction meant to conquer immortality.

Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Back in college when I was getting my BA in English Literature I took a linguistics class on Old English.  Among being taught to translate OE and finding that it was lovely to articulate guttural sounds of “wergild” and “wyrd”, we also learned about Ӕthelred the Unready.  Nice fellow, but first some background.

Ӕthelred was king of England from 978 to 1016.  He produced an abundance of male issue and fought ferociously with the Danes in a time when the chill air of the British Isles was misted with English and Danish blood.  He also had an elder brother, King Edward, who was murdered when he was 10.

In Patricia Bracewell’s book, he has issues.

Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, is his third wife.  Young, beautiful, and, at 15 years old, unprepared for the trials that await her, Emma is Ӕthelred’s latest “wyrd” or fate.  (*History geek squee* You will learn some OE words reading Bracewell’s novel.  If this is your thing, read on.)

As the protagonist in a tale rife with villains, Emma is a likable character, but she’s no Mary Sue.  She marries pluck with poise, intellect with equanimity, and she’s a challenge for her king, who behaves like a spoiled man-child whenever he faces fear or opposition.  It’s been ages since I wanted to skewer a character beneath the nearest portcullis, but Ӕthelred is an irredeemable beast.

Fortunately, another villain waits in the shadows, one that has the potential to fascinate.  Elgiva is Emma’s constant foe, the femme-fatale who tries to outwit and out-seduce her queen.  I warmed up to Elgiva first before gradually thinking the proper punishment for her might be an oubliette.   She is a vain, opportunistic witch.  This is also her charm.  I couldn’t help thinking of Anne Boleyn minus the sympathy factor.  Elgiva’s brother and father use her to their advantage, but Elgiva is more than willing to pay any price to ascend to her rightful place to the throne.  (This is the problem of believing you will be queen, Elgiva: those thoughts get stuck in your head.)

Ultimately, even though Elgiva is strong-willed, the ethos of the age is against her.  This is the hardship every woman in the novel must bear.   Athelstan, Ӕthelred’s eldest son and Emma’s love interest, sums it up best when he reflects on his late mother: “Her impact upon her sons and daughters had been of no greater weight than that made by a single snowflake when it touches the earth.  She had been but a shadow in their lives, almost invisible in the far larger shadow cast by their father, the king.”

If you’re blissfully unaware of early English history, you’ll wonder if Emma’s fate as potential mother to the crown and queen will be the same.  This theme of making one’s mark despite disadvantages is integral to every major character, and Emma gives her best effort.  Whether or not she will triumph is the subject of later books, as Shadow on theCrown is a trilogy.

Verdict

The only real difficulty I had with the novel was the amount of events covered in short frames of time, the effect being the story sometimes had a fast-forward feel.  Shadow on the Crown is based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the author incorporates periods in Emma’s life which must be largely imagined due to lack of period sources directly related to the queen.  The history is vast, and the cast list comprises a big party, to say the least.

Conversely, one of my favorite aspects to Shadow on the Crown is how I frequently recollected other stories:  Macbeth (when Ӕthelred is ridden with fraternal guilt) and Le Morte d’Arthur (with Elgiva – Morgan le Fay, Athelstan – Lancelot, Emma – Guinevere, and Ӕthelred – decidely not King Arthur).  Whether this was intentional or not, novels that refer to previous literary works have a richness and depth to them and Shadow on the Crown satisfies in this regard.

Bottom line is, if you’ve a soft spot for historicals, particularly about medieval queens and periods seldom explored in fiction, Bracewell’s debut novel is a pleasurable read.

Goodreads Book Description:

A rich tale of power and forbidden love revolving around a young medieval queen

In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.

A Review of ‘Celebrating Pride and Prejudice’

Publication Date: January 1, 2013
Publication Date: January 1, 2013

There’s magic in reading a book that’s destined to stay with you through the years.  The act of discovery is reactive.  It ripples into perspective, tearing off rose-colored glasses or placing them back on.  As with the best books, this alchemy alters everything.  The world is suddenly different.  And this is wonderful.

The terrible part comes next.  There’s that twinge of sadness when the first impression is over because there is only one first time, one exhilarating intake of those perfect moments of pleasurable reading.  Pride and Prejudice evokes these feelings in the happy souls who experience love at first read, and the loss is enough to make readers inclined, if only for a heartbeat, to go about wailing like Mrs. Bennet.

The good news is that Janeites can save themselves the trouble.

Much like rereading P&P, spending a few hours with Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece is a balm to the dismal fact that there is but one P&P among myriad imitations.  It’s a bonus that Fullerton’s enjoyment in writing the commemoration is palpable; what the book tries to accomplish and indeed does is evoke the delight of what Austen called “my own darling child” by exploring what makes the novel unforgettable.

The table of contents is enough to get this reader excited.  My favorite chapter is ‘Did They all Live Happily Ever After?: Sequels and Adaptations’ as it is an amusing summary of what happens when a novel enters the public imagination.  Visually, Celebrating also has much to recommend itself.  The pages offer illustrations adorning various editions, covers on translations and teen imprints, and historical depictions of place and person.  Fullerton’s character analyses of Elizabeth as a luminously unique heroine in her time and Darcy as the mold from which many beloved romance heroes now spring are likewise irresistible.

Underscoring all is a history of the novel’s journey, from its inception in 1796, to its underwhelming public reception before it eventually reached epic literary status.  By the book’s end, Celebrating presents an engrossing study of why P&P is so appealing.  For Janeites, it is a thoughtful guide to everything P&P.  For writers, it invites us to consider the forest for the trees.  History buffs and literary enthusiasts will also enjoy a look inside the evolution of a masterpiece, from publication to metamorphosis through films, literary sequels and adaptations, and yes, merchandising.

Verdict

I believe Fullerton has celebrated P&P in a way Jane Austen would appreciate.  The tone of Celebrating Pride and Prejudice possesses nothing of the sparkly fandom that Lydia Bennet might exhibit, nor the dry pedagogical airs of Mary Bennet.  It achieves something akin to the sisterhood between Elizabeth and Jane: best enjoyed with a warm cup of tea in a room shared with an old friend. I loved it and would highly recommend giving it a read.

~ Book Description ~

“Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure,” Elizabeth Bennet tells Fitzwilliam Darcy in one of countless exhilarating scenes in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The remembrance of Austen’s brilliant work has given its readers pleasure for 200 years and is certain to do so for centuries to come. The book is incomparable for its wit, humor, and insights into how we think and act—and how our “first impressions” (the book’s initial title) can often be remarkably off-base. All of these facets are explored and commemorated in Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, written by preeminent Austen scholar Susannah Fullerton. Fullerton delves into what makes Pride and Prejudice such a groundbreaking masterpiece, including the story behind its creation (the first version may have been an epistolary novel written when Austen was only twenty), its reception upon publication, and its tremendous legacy, from the many films and miniseries inspired by the book (such as the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth) to the even more numerous “sequels,” adaptations, mash-ups (zombies and vampires and the like), and pieces of merchandise, many of them very bizarre.
 
Interspersed throughout are fascinating stories about Austen’s brief engagement (perhaps to the man who inspired the ridiculous Mr. Collins), the “Darcin” pheromone, the ways in which Pride and Prejudice served as bibliotherapy in the World War I trenches, why it caused one famous author to be tempted into thievery, and much more. Celebrating Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful celebration of a book that has had an immeasurable influence on literature and on anyone who has had the good fortune to discover it.
 
~ About Susannah Fullerton ~
 
Susannah Fullerton is president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia (the largest literary society in the country), a post she has held for the past fifteen years.  She is a popular literary lecturer, the author of Jane Austen and Crime and many articles about Austen, and the co-editor of Jane Austen: Antipodean Views.
 
For more about Ms. Fullerton and her work, please visit her website.

Queen of Fashion – Book Review

Queen of Fashion paints a vivid picture of a defiant queen, externally frivolous, sartorially political, and, as we all know, inevitably doomed.  A queen whose legendary fashions would sweep the fabric of change before France.

 Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Throughout her youth Marie Antoinette was a figure to be envied, despised, a foreign queen who acted more like a courtesan than a consort.  The words she never spoke (Let them eat cake!) are remembered with more vivacity than those chilling sentiments recorded in her letters (“I have seen everything, known everything, forgotten everything.” October 1789).

At the end of her life, her body wracked, hemorrhaging, her soul devoured, she would die a misunderstood queen, one that history would refuse to relinquish to the crackled pages of time.

More than any other day in her life, on October 16, 1793, she inspired a rare kind of divine awe in the populace.  As noted in Weber, “By most accounts, as the spectral white figure was escorted through the double hedgerow of navy- blue-coated soldiers who lined her path, the crowds reacted with stunned, leaden silence.”   Garbed in scraggly black mourning dress during her internment at the Conciergerie and denied those same widow’s weeds upon her death (as the privilege of mourning was associated with the aristocracy) she had one last statement up her sleeve.  In a move of fashion genius, she had saved a pristine white chemise in anticipation of her final parade .  . .

Marie Antoinette Taken to the Guillotine, William Hamilton, 1794

At the age of thirty-seven, her hair the angel white of the gaulles she wore while frolicking in the gardens of the Trianon, she proceeded to the guillotine, shorn of all royal refinement, but possessed of a final resistance: undeniable, unrelenting grace.

She went to her death as she lived her life, courageously, unwilling to confirm to the dictates of her gaolers, Versailles and later, ironically, her people.

Marie Antoinette , Joseph Ducreux, 1769

Ange ou demon?

Enemy of the Republic, royal conspirator and counterrevolutionary, that Austrian bitch or conversely, victim and bubble-headed consort, Marie Antoinette proves herself as neither.  She dusted flour in her poufs while her people starved; crippled the silk industry – a mainstay in the French luxury economy – by flaunting her preference for foreign fabrics.  She influenced Louis XVI, a soft hearted, bewildered king – a break in the imperious line his Bourbon ancestors – when consorts before her faded as forgotten queens.  Her exploits infamous far beyond France, she shadowed the already dissolute, depraved Court of Versailles in her scandals, becoming the sun itself.

January 1793:  Louis, ever faithful to her, ever weak, goes to his death wearing a coat a la cheveux de la Reine, the golden-red of his wife’s youthful hair.  The future king in an abolished monarchy, Louis Charles, her son, is ripped from her prison cell, placed in the hands of a drunkard, a fervent revolutionist bent on beating privileged sensibilities out of the boy.  Although the testimony in her trial is composed of hearsay, lies, and speculation, the memory of Madame Deficit, the Autrichienne who failed to metamorphose into a true, French royal, triumphs.

In my favorite chapter, the last entitled “White,” Weber draws her readers into this profound last vision of Marie Antoinette:  “White the simultaneous coexistence of all colors: revolutionary blue and red, royalist vilent and green.  White the color of the locks she saw the executioner slip into his pocket as her sheared her head to prepare her for her fate.  White the color of matrydom, of holy heaven of eternal life.”  And this eloquent, final prose: “White the color of a ghost too beautiful, or at least too willful, to die.  White the color of the pages which her story has been – and will be – written.  Again and again and again.”

Read it?

If, after ingesting biographies, memoirs, and blogs, Marie Antoinette still holds your imagination, your picture yet incomplete of this misunderstood queen, read Queen of Fashion.  Combining exhaustive scholarship and vast insight, Caroline Weber writes with a deft hand, reviving an icon in a flourish of silks and muslins and widow’s weeds.  Revisiting her story on a Weber’s fresh canvas, I like Marie Antoinette more and I like her less, but finally, if only a little, I think I understand her.

Book 1 of Enchanted by Josephine’s French Historicals Challenge completed!