Sunday, January 24, 2021

#BookReview: The Royal Governess by Wendy Holden

Biographic Fiction

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Sunday Times bestselling author Wendy Holden brings to life the unknown childhood years of one of the world’s most iconic figures, Queen Elizabeth II, and reveals the little-known governess who made Britain’s queen into the monarch we know today.

In 1933, twenty-two-year-old Marion Crawford accepts the role of a lifetime, tutoring their Royal Highnesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Her one stipulation to their parents the Duke and Duchess of York is that she bring some doses of normalcy into the sheltered and privileged lives of the two young princesses.

At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral, Marion defies oppressive court protocol to take the girls on tube trains, swimming at public baths, and on joyful Christmas shopping trips at Woolworth’s. From her ringside seat at the heart of the British monarchy she witnesses the upheaval of the Abdication and the glamour and drama of the 1937 Coronation.

During the war, as Hitler’s Heinkels fly over Windsor, she shelters her charges in the castle dungeons (not far from where the Crown Jewels are hidden in a biscuit tin). Afterwards, she is there when Elizabeth first sets eyes on Philip. But being beloved governess and confidante to the Windsor family has come at a cost. She puts her private life on hold until released from royal service following Princess Elizabeth’s marriage in 1947.

In a majestic story of love, sacrifice, and allegiance, bestselling novelist Holden shines a captivating light into the years before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne, as immortalized on the popular television series The Crown.
Historically, Marion Crawford was a Scottish educator hired by the Duke and Duchess of York as a governess for their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. It was a privileged position, but it became all the more so when the Duke ascended the throne as George VI following his elder brother's abdication. In retirement, Marion published a book, THE LITTLE PRINCESSES, about her experiences with the royal family. The Windsors proclaimed the publication exploitive and ceased all contact with their former employee. 

Per the author's note, Holden intended THE ROYAL GOVERNESS to play on the suggestion that Marion was maltreated and misrepresented by the royal family. I obviously can't speak for the world at large, but I could not love this idea more if I tried. If the story has two sides – and what story doesn't? – what was Marion's? How could it all measure up to the common perception of a scheming and self-serving glory-hound? I had to find out, so I booked it to my local library, snagged a copy, and jumped in.

Now I know you're wondering how I went from blind enthusiasm to a two-star review, so I'll just come out and say it: I found Holden's delivery fatally flawed. 

I struggled with the author's decision to hold mention of Marion's writing or the scandal it created until the last four chapters of the narrative. I am not a writer, but in my head, this novel would have been infinitely stronger if Holden had introduced the scandal, then gone back in time to explain Marion's side of things. As is, Holden's delay undermines her intention to reframe the event and leaves readers who came to this novel specifically for the scandal feeling cheated of the experience. 

Realizing the story's direction wouldn't satisfy my preconceptions, I tried very hard to enjoy the novel for what it is. To that end, I feel I'd have liked the story more if Marion's character arc had any noticeable curvature. Unfortunately for me, her journey flatlined into a succession of walk-on roles in the defining moments of other people's lives. I got the sense that she occasionally wanted a life of her own and abhorred the aristocracy's privilege, but she was also enamored with the prestige of royal association, forgot her love life for years at a time, and failed to cultivate any compelling emotional relationships. I felt these contradictions muddied Holden's themes and, when paired with Marion's lack of growth, made it difficult to appreciate the fictional elements of the story she presented. 

In terms of accuracy, THE ROYAL GOVERNESS isn't flawless, but in Holden's defense, the errors I noticed were so minor that I didn't factor them in my rating. Holden depicts Debo Mitford as singled-mindedly interested in marrying a Duke. This is odd as the real Debo was married to Lord Andrew Cavendish for three years before the death of Andrew's elder brother placed her husband in line for his father's title (BLACK DIAMONDS by Bailey or THE KENNEDY DEBUTANTE by Maher). Elizabeth's engagement ring is also noted as square, but Google will quickly reveal that rock is round. I don't consider either slip significant to Marion's story and write both off as accidental, but if this is the kind of thing that will ruin a story for you, it might be best to move on.   

All things considered, I feel THE ROYAL GOVERNESS has some strengths. I quite liked Holden's approach to Wallis Simpson, George VI, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret, but when it gets down to Marion Crawford, I didn't find Holden's thesis convincing and felt the overall presentation disjointed.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Library
Read: January 21, 2021

#HistoricalFictionReader: Most Anticipated New Releases of 2021

Greetings Book Community!

Like many readers, I haunt the new release lists for reading material. Every year, I bookmark more titles than I can actually get through, but I also have a shortlist of new release titles I flag "must-reads". 

I set a budget for this list. If I see my library is getting a copy I put myself on the waitlist. When my budget won't stretch or the library doesn't have a copy, I put these titles in as requested acquisitions or suggest them as gift ideas to anyone who asks me for ideas. The point is that by the end of the year, I will have experienced these "must-read" stories and for the first time in my blog career, I've decided to share them with the world. 

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to give an honorable mention to each of the following: 
      • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (a semi-biographical coming of age story set in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn and Haiti)
      • The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray (a triple narrative about the women who lived, loved, and resisted injustice from Ch√Ęteau de Chavaniac)
      • The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (a novel about the codebreakers of Bletchley Park)
All three of these books were on my "must-reads" list for 2021, but I somehow managed to read all three before composing this post. All three are absolutely fabulous and I highly recommend tracking them down, but I can't claim to be looking forward to these books as I've already read them cover to cover. 

As of today, my "must-read" list for 2021 is, in no particular order, as follows: 
      • The Cape Doctor by E.J. Levy (a biographical fiction about Dr. James Miranda Barry)
      • The Collector's Daughter by Gill Paul (a novel about the discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb)
      • The Girls in the Attic by Marius Gabriel (a novel about WWII)
      • Shallow Waters by Anita Kopacz (a novel of Black resilience and feminine strength, set against the Atlantic slave trade)
      • The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton (a cultural-historical inspired by the life of Evangelina Cisneros)
      • The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (a novel about WWII)
      • Island Queen by Vanessa Riley (a biographical fiction about Dorothy Kirwan Thomas)
      • Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan (a novel about the Pulaski disaster)
      • Three Words for Goodbye by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor (a novel about two sisters on a journey inspired by Nellie Bly)
      • The American Adventuress by C.W. Gortner (a biographical fiction about Jennie Jerome)
      • The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck (a biographical fiction about Virginia Hall)
      • Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson (a novel of love and survival, set in Lumpkin's Jail)
      • The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abe (a biographical novel of Madeleine Force)
      • Sisters In Arms by Kaia Alderson (a novel about the only all-Black, female U.S. battalion to be deployed overseas during World War II)
      • Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton (a biographical fiction about Elizabeth Bentley)
      • A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick (a biographical fiction about William de Valence and Joanna of Swanscombe)

Am I an addict? Yes. Am I ashamed? Not on your life. 

Do you keep a "must-read" list? Are any of these books on your radar? What titles are you looking forward to? I'd love to hear from you!

Happy Reading
Erin Davies

Saturday, January 9, 2021

#BookReview: The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith

Young Adult Historical
War Era Historical

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A WWII romance between two Japanese teens caught in the cogs of an unwinnable war.

Japan 1945. Taro is a talented violinist and a kamikaze pilot in the days before his first and only mission. He believes he is ready to die for his country . . . until he meets Hana. Hana hasn't been the same since the day she was buried alive in a collapsed trench during a bomb raid. She wonders if it would have been better to have died that day . . . until she meets Taro.

A song will bring them together. The war will tear them apart. Is it possible to live an entire lifetime in eight short days? 
Sherri L. Smith's The Blossom and the Firefly stood out the moment I saw it. I have always been a bit of a cover slut and was immediately drawn to the jacket art, but I am also a diehard fan of historical fiction and harbor a specific interest in novels that spotlight diverse perspectives. Long story short, I hooked before I had time to think and had trouble waiting for the audio to come through from my local library.

I mention the audio because this production has two narrators. Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Greg Watanabe give terrific performances, but I was attracted to the independence and authenticity their voices gave Taro and Hana. I understand costs can be prohibitive, but the decision to hire dual talent for this dual narrative definitely enhanced my experience of the story.

Audiobooks depend on the quality of the actors, but they are nothing without the storyteller behind the script. Smith's eye for subject matter is undeniable, but her command of language is the heart and soul of this piece. Smith's prose is dreamy and melancholic, but I felt the lyrical tone of the text a beautiful compliment to the perspective of the adolescent musicians who serve as her narrators. 

The Blossom and the Firefly is slow-paced, Young Adult lit, but it is also a poignant war story that gives unique visibility to the boy pilots of the Imperial Japanese Army airbase at Chiran and the high school girls who waved them into the skies. Though not a significant character, I also felt the novel's acknowledgment of Tome Torihama touching and sincerely appreciated the thematic complexity of the novel.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Library
Read: January 9, 2021

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

#BookReview: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Literary Fiction

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“Pure brilliance. So much will be written about Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie—how it blends history and magic into a new kind of telling, how it spins the past to draw deft circles around our present—but none of it will measure up to the singular joy of reading this book.” —Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk  

The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman returns with an unforgettable story about the meaning of freedom.
Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson was all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, had a vision for their future together: Libertie would go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her mother who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel resonates in our times and is perfect for readers of Brit Bennett, Min Jin Lee, and Yaa Gyasi.
I was not sure what to expect when I plunked Libertie from my staggering TBR. I had not read Kaitlyn Greenidge before, but I was drawn to both the themes in the jacket description and the novel’s unique setting. I have not encountered many stories set in Haiti, and I could not resist jumping at the opportunity to indulge my interest in culturally diverse historicals.

Greenidge’s novel is not a strict biographic fiction, but both Cathy and Libertie Sampson are modeled on real people. The inspiration for Dr. Cathy Sampson came from the life and achievements of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in New York state. Dr. Steward had two children with her first husband, Rev. William G. McKinney, and while I could not find much about either online, I did discover a New York news clipping announcing the marriage of Anna M. McKinney to Louis Holly of Port-au-Prince.

I do not know how Greenidge developed her fiction, but I love how she draped her ideas around authentic experiences. The author put her own spin on the story to spotlight notions of race, colorism, gender, feminism, autonomy, and freedom, but the structure of the novel is a compliment to the lives that sparked Greenidge’s imagination in the first place. I do not mean to downplay the thematic material, the underlying motifs of this novel touched my heart, but I feel the decision to explore these ideas through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship took this story to another level.

A perceptive, thought-provoking, and illuminating narrative, Libertie is a story well-worth seeking out.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 6, 2021