Thursday, September 16, 2021

#BookReview: The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abe

Genre
Biographical Historical Fiction

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
Perfect for fans of Jennifer Chiaverini and Marie Benedict, this riveting novel takes you inside the scandalous courtship and catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic of the most famous couple of their time—John Jacob Astor and Madeleine Force. Told in rich detail, this novel of sweeping historical fiction will stay with readers long after turning the last page.

Madeleine Talmage Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor. Madeleine is beautiful, intelligent, and solidly upper-class, but the Astors are in a league apart. Jack’s mother was the Mrs. Astor, American royalty and New York’s most formidable socialite. Jack is dashing and industrious—a hero of the Spanish-American war, an inventor, and a canny businessman. Despite their twenty-nine-year age difference, and the scandal of Jack’s recent divorce, Madeleine falls headlong into love—and becomes the press’s favorite target.

On their extended honeymoon in Egypt, the newlyweds finally find a measure of peace from photographers and journalists. Madeleine feels truly alive for the first time—and is happily pregnant. The couple plans to return home in the spring of 1912, aboard an opulent new ocean liner. When the ship hits an iceberg close to midnight on April 14th, there is no immediate panic. The swift, state-of-the-art RMS Titanic seems unsinkable. As Jack helps Madeleine into a lifeboat, he assures her that he’ll see her soon in New York…

Four months later, at the Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansion, a widowed Madeleine gives birth to their son. In the wake of the disaster, the press has elevated her to the status of virtuous, tragic heroine. But Madeleine’s most important decision still lies ahead: whether to accept the role assigned to her, or carve out her own remarkable path… 
REVIEW: 
Am I the only one who hears Kate Winslet's voice in their head every time they look at Shana Abe's THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR? As with most adaptations, the Astors enjoy a cameo role in Titanic (1997). Few, if any, have placed the couple center stage, and I think that reality is what drew me to Abe's work. This lens was set in an angle I'd never seen, and I was excited at the potential of fresh perspective. 

According to Goodreads, most of my peers enjoyed everything about this book, and I think that wonderful. I genuinely love seeing readers find books that speak to them, but my experience with THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR was tempered by a desire for it to have gone further than it does. Without putting too fine a point on it, I'd hoped for something comparable to Alcott's THE DRESSMAKER, a story that spoke to the survivor experience and the advocacy roles adopted by Madeleine and her contemporaries. Abe's story, however, ends amid the solemnity of funeral processions and black silk. 

I realized this story wouldn't touch on Madeleine's interest in women's suffrage or the support she lent the "twilight sleep" campaign before I'd finished the prologue, but I was surprised at the ardency of the romance Abe presented her readers. Tickled though I was by the thought of genuine affection between Madeleine and Jack, I was thrown by how easily the two came together. Like Sissi in Pataki's THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS, Madeleine wasn't the girl on whom her parents initially pinned their ambitions, and, like Consuelo in Harper's AMERICAN DUCHESS, there's reason to believe Madeleine's heart belonged to another before Jack entered her life. I give Abe credit for depicting the social stigma that characterized the couple's marriage, but the historical record offers more dramatic potential than her novel affords, and I can't understand her hesitance to take advantage of that.

Critical though my opinion may seem, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR to anyone interested in the infamous ocean liner. Abe's decadent descriptions of period decor, fashion, and jewelry are without rival, but I'm just not sure this title the best choice for those searching for profound thematic motifs or complex matters of the heart.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 15, 2021
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Sunday, September 12, 2021

#BookReview: Lost in Darkness by Michelle Griep

Genre
Historical Christian Fiction

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
Enchanting Regency-Era Gothic Romance Intertwined with Inspiration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
 
Travel writer Amelia Balfour’s dream of touring Egypt is halted when she receives news of a revolutionary new surgery for her grotesquely disfigured brother. This could change everything, and it does. . .in the worst possible way.
 
Surgeon Graham Lambert has suspicions about the doctor he’s gone into practice with, but he can’t stop him from operating on Amelia’s brother. Will he be too late to prevent the man’s death? Or to reveal his true feelings for Amelia before she sails to Cairo?
REVIEW: 
I was less than ten pages into Michelle Griep's LOST IN DARKNESS when I realized I had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. I have nothing against the genre, but I'd been so distracted at the idea of what this book could be that I failed to identify it as Christian fiction. This fact naturally caused me to question whether or not I'm qualified to review anything more complex than a napkin ring, but that's a topic for another day. 

I came to Griep's work hoping for something akin to Kessel's PRIDE AND PROMETHEUS. This expectation wasn't entirely unreasonable as both novels play on the themes and ideas of Shelley's masterpiece, but the comparison proved analogous to that of apples and oranges, so I took a step back and thought again. Moments in this novel, particularly those where Griep's heroine shares her stage with the famed author, brought Ambrose's CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET to mind, but in terms of content, I think this piece shelves best alongside Daines' IT STARTED IN BUDAPEST.  

That said, my struggle with LOST IN DARKNESS wasn't limited to poorly placed assumptions. I appreciated the melancholic notes Griep struck with Colin, but Amalia, Graham, and Dr. Peckwood proved too static for my tastes. I also felt that despite the emotional aesthetic of the final act, the gothic elements of the story took too long to develop. 

When all is said and done, I'm not sure LOST IN DARKNESS has enough meat on the bone to appeal to secular readers, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to genre enthusiasts. Though I didn't care one way or the other for the religious content of this book, I feel very strongly that I'd have enjoyed it a great deal more if I'd been emotionally invested in its themes and motifs.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 9, 2021
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Friday, September 10, 2021

#BookReview: Gone by Nightfall by Dee Garretson

Genre
Young Adult Historical

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
A young woman is torn between her home and her dreams during the Russian Revolution.

It’s 1917, and Charlotte Mason is determined to make a life for herself in czarist Russia. When her mother dies, Charlotte is forced to put her plans to go to medical school aside to care for her unruly siblings. Then a handsome new tutor arrives. Charlotte has high hopes that he’ll stay, freeing her up to follow her dreams of becoming a doctor. But there’s more to Dmitri that meets the eye.

Just when she thinks she can get her life back, Russia descends into revolution and chaos. Now, not only does Charlotte need to leave Russia, she needs to get her siblings out too--and fast.

Can Charlotte flee Russia, keep her siblings safe, and uncover Dmitri’s many secrets before she runs out of time?
REVIEW: 
If you’ve come to my review in hopes of seeing a novel destroyed, you’ve come to the wrong place. I hate to disappoint, but I’ve no intention of trashing Dee Garretson’s GONE BY NIGHTFALL. As a younger reviewer, I’d have gladly mounted my soapbox to vent my frustrations like a screaming banshee, but ten years in this gig have cooled my sense of rage.

I came to this book wanting a meaty historical, something that captured the nuance of the Russian Revolution, and GONE BY NIGHTFALL is designed as more of a primer. The research is solidly presented, but it’s tempered for an audience less familiar with the material, a fact I probably should have expected in a genre designed for readers ages twelve to eighteen.

Now, I could blame Garretson for failing to meet expectations shaped by Gortner’s THE ROMANOV EMPRESS and Alexander’s RASPUTIN’S DAUGHTER, but I don’t feel that is a particularly fair comparison to make. I’m not saying adults can’t read and enjoy young adult fiction - the genre has produced some genuinely fantastic works - but these authors have to operate in parameters that don’t apply to the adult market, and that reality ofttimes prevents them from capturing the complexities that appeal to my tastes.

Garretson’s work is perfectly appropriate to her audience, but I am not part of that demographic and couldn’t rouse my enthusiasm for this one. I’d have absolutely no trouble recommending GONE BEFORE NIGHTFALL to younger readers or diehard fans of the young adult genre, but I’d be hard-pressed to offer the title to anyone with a taste for intricate or fast-paced storytelling.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 8, 2021
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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

#BookReview: Hotel Oriente by Jennifer Hallock

Genre
Historical Romance

Series
Sugar Sun #0.5

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
The Oriente is the finest hotel in Manila... but that’s not saying much.

Hotel manager Moss North already has his hands full trying to make the Oriente a respectable establishment amidst food shortages, plumbing disasters, and indiscreet guests. So when two VIPs arrive—an American congressman and his granddaughter Della—Moss knows that he needs to pull out all the stops to make their stay a success.

That won’t be easy: the Oriente is a meeting place for all manner of carpetbaggers hoping to profit off the fledgling American colony—and not all of these opportunists’ schemes are strictly on the up-and-up. Moss can manage the demanding congressman, but he will have to keep a close eye on Della—she is a little too nosy about the goings-on of the hotel and its guests. And there is also something very different about her...
REVIEW: 
Historical fiction is not limited to any specific time or place, but it does not take a genius to note the spotlight shines on some nations more frequently than others. There are many reasons for this, none of which bear repeating here, but as someone who spends a great deal of time with the genre, I will say I get genuinely excited when I stumble across stories set in less popular locales.

Now it’s not impossible to find historical fiction set in the Philippines, I recommend both Apostol’s INSURRECTO and Hooper’s ANGELS OF THE PACIFIC, but novels that take place in the archipelago are few and far between. This being the case, I jumped at the prospect of Jennifer Hallock’s Sugar Sun series and immediately procured a copy of the first installment, HOTEL ORIENTE, for my library.

At only one hundred and twelve pages, the novella proved a quick but delightful read. I loved that the plot played on a real profiteering scandal that occurred at the Hotel de Oriente, but I was equally intrigued by Hallock’s heroine. Della Berget’s independent nature engaged my imagination, but I was fascinated by how Hallock used her character to illustrate the practical and social challenges faced by the deaf community at the turn of the twentieth century.

A deliciously steamy love scene makes HOTEL ORIENTE an excellent choice for fans of historical romance, but I would caution those interested in political dialogue to keep an open mind. The book features enlightening details on commercial operations in the Philippines in the early 1900s, but its modest length prevents Hallock from delving into the details of the Philippine–American War. According to the description, that material plays a prominent role in the next installment of the series, but the conflict is not the focal point of this story and should not be expected to take center stage.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 1, 2021
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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

#BookReview: The Leper King by Scott R. Rezer

Genre
Crusade Era Historical

Series
The Magdalen Cycle #1

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
King of Jherusalem and Defender of the Holy Sepulcher, Baldwin walks the sword's edge between the quarreling barons of his Court and the jihad of Islam. Between the two, however, a sinister presence lurks--a cabal of heretics who will stop at nothing to see its dark designs come to fruition. Baldwin is young, courageous, and a leper. In the midst of mounting political tensions and war, a beautiful woman befriends the lonely sick king--a woman who claims she is an immortal saint.
REVIEW: 
I owe my reading of THE LEPER KING to authors Autumn Bardot and Glen Craney. Autumn didn’t recommend the book; I’m not sure she’s even aware it exists, but a casual comment she gave on Kingdom of Heaven (2005) sent me in search of a novel featuring Baldwin IV. The internet quickly suggested Penman’s THE LAND BEYOND THE SEA and Schrader’s BALIAN D’IBELIN: KNIGHT OF JERUSALEM, but it was Glen’s review of Scott R. Rezer that caught my eye. I hadn’t been looking for historical fantasy, but what’s life without whimsy?

Despite its genre, Rezer’s work shouldn’t be assumed light reading. The author may have draped the realities of Baldwin’s life in a thoroughly entertaining shroud of heretical conspiracy and religious mysticism, but he doesn’t ignore the political and spiritual dialogues of the age. Imaginative though it is, THE LEPER KING is a multicultural crusade era novel that comprehensively depicts the tumultuous undercurrents and bitter rivalries of Baldwin’s kingdom.  

I felt Rezer crafted intriguing portraits of Mary, Agnes, Simon, Saladin, and Sybilla, but his approach to Baldwin blew me away. Where he might have offered readers a piteous invalid or a tragic saint, Rezer created a charmingly dynamic young man. A young ruler, plagued by doubt but driven to understand and fulfill his spiritual purpose despite the circumstances of his disease. Razer obviously respects Baldwin’s legacy, but the manner in which he humanized his legendary protagonist took this book to a level I wasn’t expecting when I picked it up. 

Rezer possesses a poetic command of language and I delighted in the cadence of his prose. I discovered this volume by accident, but I loved every minute I spent with THE LEPER KING and am eager to read the second installment of the series. Due to particular plot points, I wouldn’t recommend THE LEPER KING to readers with no taste for the fantastic, but I wouldn’t hesitate to offer this piece to anyone with an open mind and an appreciation for creative storytelling. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: August 30, 2021
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Monday, September 6, 2021

#BookReview: Last Night With Tokyo Rose by Alexa Kang

Genre
World War II Historical

Series
Nisei War Series #1

Author Links

DESCRIPTION: 
Like any other American man, Tom Sakai wants nothing but a good life and a decent job. But in 1941, his country is not a friendly place for a Nisei. Being a son of Japanese immigrants, he’s never American enough. As Japan and the United States edge to the brink of war, the truth is all too clear. America has no place for someone like him. In search of his place in the world, he leaves his hometown of Seattle and sets out to sea.

In Manila, he meets Fumiko, a Nisei from Los Angeles with a heartbreaking past who captures his heart. His soulmate who tread the same path of prejudice he walked at home. Together, they begin a new life in this burgeoning city under American colonial rule where they are no longer shunned.

The Pearl Harbor attack destroys their dreams. Their dual identity now forces them to take a side. Their survival hinges on whether they stand with the land of the rising sun or the land of the free.

Stranded in occupied territory, Tom must decide where his loyalty lies. Should he swear his allegiance to Imperial Japan, the instigator of war and violence? Or America, the country that deserted him when the world's darkest hour begins?

What happens if his choice diverges from his one true love?
REVIEW: 
Amazon’s bestselling WWII historicals are currently dominated by novels set in France, England, Germany, and the United States. It’s excellent material, and I completely understand its appeal, but as a genre addict, I find these locales have lost their novelty. My eyes are accustomed to these settings, and while I’m not averse to revisiting the familiar, I find my interest more easily tempted by stories set elsewhere, stories such as Alexa Kang’s LAST NIGHT WITH TOKYO ROSE.

Though I’ve eyed many of her novels, the first installment of the Nisei War series marks my first experience with Kang’s work. I came to this piece without any real expectation but was ultimately impressed by the author’s illustration of the pre-war prejudice Japanese immigrants and their families suffered in America. In the last few years, the emotional resonance of novels like Rindell’s EAGLE & CRANE, Meissner’s THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, and Morrill’s WITHIN THESE LINES struck chords I’ve not forgotten, but these novels all focus on the injustice of internment. The expansive scope of Kang’s work depicts life in the decades before Executive Order 9066 and, in so doing, challenges readers to reconsider their understanding of the Japanese American experience from a much more layered and multi-faceted perspective. That said, I wish the author had chosen to relay her story through a more provocative and proactive protagonist.

In the Afterward, Kang notes she was hesitant to take risks with this book, that she worried readers might take offense at her plot or the way she chose to present her characters. I understand this fear, but I feel it prompted Kang to write too safely. Tom spends most of the novel disinterested in anything that doesn’t involve a girl or a paycheck, a fact that makes him about as interesting as a wet dishtowel. His frustrations are noteworthy, but it takes him so long to adopt a definitive perspective on any of the issues he experiences that his eleventh-hour movements felt entirely inauthentic to his nature. Kang can write thought-provoking characters – Maggie, Katsuo, Fumiko, Russo, Emilio, and Claire all jumped from the page – but Tom didn’t hold my attention in any way, shape, or form.

Historically speaking, I admire Kang’s use of the Japanese propaganda broadcast system, but I don’t think it played as prominently as the title suggests. A thematic drama rather than a romantic one, LAST NIGHT WITH TOKYO ROSE is a story rife with complex questions, brutal truths, and honor in the face of adversity.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: August 23, 2021
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