Review of “Where the Light Enters” (The Waverly Place Series #2) by Sara Donati

Donati, Sara. Where the Light Enters. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425271827 | 652 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

Where the Light Enters does suffer from a bit of “second-book” syndrome, with the story not being as continually engaging as the first book, in part due to there being a lot going on once again, and it feeling not as cohesive at times, both setting up aspects for as-yet-unannounced future books (as implied in the note at the end) and attempting to build on all that had been established in The Gilded Hour.

But it’s still a pretty good book, in spite of being a bit scattered, in particular the way Donati continues to develop her characters. I love the relationship between Anna and Jack, and how there really are no secrets between them. And given the way things ended for Sophie in the previous book, I was saddened at the revelation of her husband, Cap’s, death, even though it was pretty much a certainty, and her navigating widowhood and all the complications that can come with it (like being propositioned by another physician to beghin an affair), along with the continued development of the cases she and Anna find themselves working with, and the political opposition they also face.

I found the mystery a bit less interesting in comparison to the domestic and political facets of the story, but it is, as with the prior book, intertwined with those aspects, showing the complicated uphill battle for women’s rights during the late nineteenth century.

This is a fairly solid book, and the developments in this one already have me anxious for news about future installments of the series. I would recommend it to fans of epic-length historical fiction.

Review of “The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee

Lee, Stacey. The Downstairs Girl. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524740955 | 374 pages | YA Historical Fiction

5 stars

I heard about The Downstairs Girl on BookTube, when one of the BookTubers I watch on occasion mentioned it being on her list of anticipated summer releases, followed by a reasonably positive review from her, and others online.,And the premise appealed to me immediately, promising to deal with racial issues and women’s suffrage in the late 19th century American South.

And I found it was both a reasonably entertaining read and one that further delved into aspects I knew a bit about, educating me about another perspective on them. I knew about the surge of Asian immigrants in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but I knew about it more from a localized perspective, with the lens of the Hawaii plantations with some insight of the West Coast Asian immigrant experience, including the broad implications of the Chinese Exclusion Act. But I knew little about immigration in this period to the South, and the startling, but suddenly very obvious, fact that they did this due to the abolition of slavery. As a a result, I found it fascinating how it delved into the issues of segregation, just as much as it did suffrage.

Jo has a strong voice, and I love how she is so forthright in her opinions. Her column in particular makes up the best part of the novel. I also loved the relationships throughout the book, like that with her adoptive father, Old Gin, and her friend, Noemi.

This is a wonderfully engrossing, leisurely paced historical fiction novel that will leave you with an understanding of racial issues, and is recommended for all lovers of historical fiction.

Review of “The Gilded Hour” (The Waverly Place Series #1) by Sara Donati

Donati, Sara. The Gilded Hour. 2015. New York: Berkley, 2016.

Paperback | $17.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425283349 | 757 pages | Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

I picked up Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour by chance at the library. While I had seen it on a Gilded Age recommended reading list sometime in the past, I didn’t seriously consider picking it up until I saw it on the “New Books” shelf net to the recently released sequel, at which point, instant gratification of a sort won out.

And being in the mood for somewhat epic historical fiction lately, I enjoyed this one. This book is engrossing in the complex politics of the Gilded Age medical field, with a central plot surrounding the death of a woman who performed an illegal abortion, and the involvement of the two female doctors who treated her. I love how delicately Donati dealt with the contradictions of the era, with not only abortion and birth control as hot-button issues, but also the parallel movement of eugenics rising in popularity at the time.

Her two central characters, second cousins Anna and Sophie Savard, are both compelling leads, and seeing how they interact with their society with all this going on given that they are female physicians (as well as Sophie being mixed-race, as fact that is commented on several times, particularly in news articles).

I also very much enjoyed getting to know all the other characters, in particular seeing the relationships between Anna and Sophie and their respective romantic partners flourish, even if Sophie’s romance is doomed to end prematurely due to her sweetheart’s illness.

Despite the length and the unfolding mystery element with the discovery of an abortionist killer, it lurks in the background for the most part, so if there’s one flaw, it’s that the book is a little slow with a lot going on, and there are still several loose ends in the plot which I hope will be given at least some satisfactory answers, at least enough to tide readers over if she plans another series of the scope of the previous one (which I do plan to read in the nesr future), and will be releasing them on a more staggered schedule.

This is an enjoyable read, with its main strength being its grand depiction of the lives of people in Gilded Age society. I recommend this to other fans of epic-length historical fiction.

Review of “The Widow of Rose House” by Diana Biller

Biller, Diana. The Widow of Rose House. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250297853 | 252 pages | Historical Romance–Gilded Age

5 stars

I received an ARC in a Goodreads Giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

The Widow of Rose House is a pleasant surprise to me in a number of wayss. It’s a engaging debut novel set in a period that is shamefully not explored enough for my liking, and hopefully finally puts an end to the string of subpar reads and DNFs I’ve had more or less in a row. While the focus is much more on developing the romantic relationship and the mystery plot over any period detail beyond what is needed to set the scene, it’s nonetheless an incredibly delightful book that intrigued me almost immediately and did not let me go.

The setup with the widow who was in an abusive marriage is a familiar one, but I loved it was handled here, especially with his family determined to cast blame on Alva in the aftermath, and the scars that leaves on her. There are moments where she is jarred by her brother-in-law’s appearance both for his threatening nature in his own right and for his resemblance to his brother, and I think that helped to amp up the suspense factor.

However, she meets the perfect counterpart in Sam, an inventor, who is as intelligent as she is and compassionate where her former husband was not. It was beautiful seeing the walls come down between them, first giving into passion, and then lasting love.

I was a little nervous at how the “ghosts” element would play out, but it’s done in an incredibly plausible way, and one where I couldn’t help but feel sorry for that particular character. I also appreciate the statement it made about poor nineteenth century mental health care, and that it led to Alva resolving to do her part to make things better for people still living with mental illnesses.

This is a delightful historical, and one I recommend picking up when it comes out especially if you like your historicals with a bit of suspense and a touch of the paranormal.

Review of “The Rogue of Fifth Avenue” (Uptown Girls #1) by Joanna Shupe

Shupe, Joanna. The Rogue of Fifth Avenue. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062906816 | 382 pages | Historical Romance–Gilded Age

5 stars

The Rogue of Fifth Avenue just might be one of my favorite Joanna Shupe books. A large part of it is the compelling hero, Frank Tripp, who was a supporting character in Shupe’s previous series, the Four Hundred, inspiring many readers to demand for his book.

And she definitely delivered, fleshing him out in a beautiful way. I’m a sucker for a self-made hero, and I love the conflict that is explored through his wanting to fit in with the upper crust and in the process losing a bit of his past, then spending the book working to find it again. In an era rife with self-made men, like Andrew Carnegie (who is name-dropped in this book, of course), it seemed like a beautiful and appropriate journey for him to go on.

I also love how he’s complemented in the characterization of Mamie, a society woman who values helping the less fortunate. It’s kind of an interesting twist on the class dynamic, to have someone who comes from privilege with more awareness of the world, and someone who came from nothing having to re-attune himself to it.

Also, the banter between them is on point, and I think I finally grasp the meaning of a sensual scene that doesn’t involve sexual acts now that I’ve read that amazing billiard scene (granted, it is a lead-in for some sexy times).

This is a beautiful Gilded Age-set romance and Joanna Shupe at (arguably) her best. I would definitely recommend to other historical romance fans and Gilded Age fans.

Review of “That Churchill Woman” by Stephanie Barron

Barron, Stephanie.dind That Churchill Woman. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $28.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524799564 | 387 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I picked up That Churchill Woman in my continued pursuit of more books about the Gilded Age and the “Dollar Princesses,” and was also intrigued at the connection to Winston Churchill, who I had heard about in connection to British history, especially World War II, but didn’t know much about beyond that.

While Jennie is by no means a woman with a perfect reputation, engaging in affairs with other men in high places, including with an Austrian nobleman, Charles Kinsky, she also had an awareness of what was considered acceptable at the time in society, supporting her husband’s political ambitions and staying with him in spite of any setbacks. And while Winston himself doesn’t play a major role, given that at the time the story is set, he is still growing up and getting his education, by the end of the book, it is wonderful to see that not only is he about to follow in his father’s footsteps by going into politics (which of course he does), but Jennie is prepared to support him in the same way she supported her husband.

This is a rich historical novel about a remarkable woman who I think should be discussed more in the context of Winston Churchill’s life and work. And it is definitely a treat I would recommend to other fans of historical fiction.

Review of “Some Like it Scandalous” (Gilded Age Girls’ Club #2) by Maya Rodale

Rodale, Maya. Some Like it Scandalous. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062838834 | 355 pages | Historical Romance–Gilded Age

5 stars

Some Like it Scandalous is just as much of a delight as the first book in the series, once again taking inspiration from a pioneering late 19th century American female entrepreneur, this time delving into the fascinating and radical world of cosmetics, and like with the discussions surrounding fashion in the prior book, I love how Rodale managed to discuss the historical attitudes toward them, especially since cosmetics have a much more sordid reputation historically, along with being linked often with vapidness, and highlight the truly revolutionary message of freedom behind the makeup industry.

Daisy is also an incredibly charming heroine, and one that I found easy to root for. It’s beautiful seeing how she became inspired to create some of her different subversive projects, from the original complexion balm, to the lip paint which we concocts later in the story. I also love the continued centrality of female empowerment and friendship as a major facet of the book, with a memorable scene in Delmonico’s, which, as implied in the author’s note, was inspired by the real trailblazers of the period doing something similar.

I wasn’t sure about Theo at first, given that his past included being a bully, so I could see it following in the trend of the growing subset of bully romances, and his present consisted of being a good-for-nothing playboy. However, I should not have doubted Rodale for a second where he was concerned, as not only does he show regret for his actions and come to Daisy’s defense against the others making fun of her, but he is one of the few who, once he begins to see things from her perspective, actually embraces it wholeheartedly, in contrast to both their parents, who are determined to hold onto their expectations for their respective offspring.

This is one of the few historical series that has really made me happy recently, and I can’t wait till next year (why can’t it come faster?) for the next one! I would recommend this to all historical romance fans.

Review of “Carnegie’s Maid” by Marie Benedict

Benedict, Marie. Carnegie’s Maid. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2018.

Hardcover | $25.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492646617 | 281 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

Carnegie’s Maid caught my attention almost immediately, although I admit I took a while to actually pick it up, given I had only a passing interest in Andrew Carnegie as a major financial supporter of libraries, and perhaps a vague idea of him as a Gilded Age and early 20th century industrialist. However, again seeking more books set in this time period, I decided to finally give it a go.

I was intrigued by Benedict’s approach to Carnegie as a character, as it really showed a juxtaposition of his humble origins (which I wasn’t aware of beforehand) and his lofty ambitions. While it’s something I had seen before in some of the other novels I had read, I loved seeing the way the seeds were sown for him to go from being just another rags-to-riches snob to someone who actually reflects on his origins and works to fund resources to help immigrants coming to America for a better life.

But Clara is definitely the star of the book, and I love how her situation as an immigrant herself draws on more than just being a fictional character who spends most of the book in the sphere of Carnegie and his family, but also looks at the day-to-day existence of many immigrant women during the period. Benedict’s remarks on the personal connection she drew on in her own family history to create Clara was wonderful.

And while it’s only briefly touched on at the end, it’s wonderful to see a woman like Clara find success that doesn’t necessarily involve marriage and the domestic sphere, and also alluding to the role that Carnegie Libraries played in helping provide other immigrants (and the general public overall) with access to education, a legacy which continues today.

This is a wonderful book that highlights the poignant story of coming to America and working to better oneself. I would recommend this to anyone who loves a great historical fiction story.

Review of “American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt” by Karen Harper

Harper, Karen. American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062748331 | 357 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I knew a bit about Consuelo Vanderbilt from having read another author’s book loosely inspired by her life as well as subsequently watching excerpts form the Smithsonian’s channel on YouTube and looking up bare facts online…not to mention reading Therese Fowler’s recent book about her mother Alva, with a coincidentally similar cover, due to usage of the same stock image. Therefore, I was definitely disposed to feel sympathy toward her.

But Harper brings to light the bigger picture that I missed from my surface-level research, stripping back the “poor little rich girl” narrative to unveil Consuelo’s true strength of character. Despite being more or less forced into a loveless union, she is well-suited to the duties that come with being a duchess beyond simply bearing the “heir and a spare,” like endearing herself to the people around her, especially the less fortunate, something she continued to do after the dissolution of her marriage to the duke. She also highlights the complexities of the relationship between Alva and Consuelo in a beautiful way: growing up, Alva was hard on her, but in the toughest of times, Alva was one of her biggest supporters.

And this is just one example of showing layered characters and complex relationships, in spite of it being told solely through Consuelo’s perspective. One of my favorites has to be the way the duke’s second wife, Gladys, was written, particularly at a point when she confronts Consuelo after their own marriage has failed and they’ve separated. Despite the fact that this woman had played a role in wronging Consuelo, I could not help but feel a bit of pity for her at her diminished mental state and found myself feeling even more contempt for the duke than I had previously.

I very much enjoyed this book, and how it highlights that Consuelo not only got her happy ending after all, but also the other great things she did throughout her life as well. I would recommend this to any fan of historical fiction.

Review of “A Well-Behaved Woman” by Therese Anne Fowler

Fowler, Therese Anne. A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Hardcover | $27.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250095473 | 392 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

I went into A Well-Behaved Woman excited to read more about Gilded Age from a more biographical fiction standpoint. And this ended up being one of those books I had a lot of mixed feelings about, in part due to the protagonist.

I will say one thing: Alva Vanderbilt is definitely misrepresented in history, especially given that one of her most notable moments is saying she forced her daughter into her aristocratic marriage. And she definitely has great moments that are highlighted through Fowler’s engaging prose: the way she persevered in a bad situation prior to and after her marriage to William K. Vanderbilt, and not to mention her contributions first as a society wife and later as a leader in the suffrage movement.

But I think by paying attention to both the less-than-auspicious way her marriage began and her actions upon the disintegration of her marriage, it puts into deeper clarity her flaws regarding her daughter. She may not have forced Consuelo to marry the Duke of Marlborough against her will, but she did forbid her to marry for love, after seeing how badly her own marriage for security turned out, and being all but ready to make another marriage for love herself. I know it was the done thing at the time, but it just all felt so hypocritical, especially when she was prophesying ruin when it came to Consuelo and the man she loved.

I also feel like the time jump at the end from shortly after both Consuelo’s marriage to Marlborough and her own marriage to Belmont to years later when Alva is a suffragist, Consuelo is separated, and the two are reunited after years of estrangement did not do any favors in this regard either.

I will praise Fowler for writing this book, which perfectly captured the era, but saw me feeling less and less endeared to a protagonist who I think Fowler wanted to redeem. But I do still recommend this to other fans of historical fiction, in the hopes that others enjoy it more than I did.