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.

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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.

Review of “A Notorious Vow” (The Four Hundred #3) by Joanna Shupe

Shupe, Joanna. A Notorious Vow. New York: Avon Books, 2018.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062678942 | 376 pages | Historical Romance–Gilded Age

4.5 stars

A Notorious Vow is by far my favorite in Joanna Shupe’s Four Hundred series, and perhaps my favorite book of hers since Baron in her previous series. And a lot of it is down to the character development, especially for the hero. Oliver is a great example of a softer, nice hero, but one who is not lacking for depth and complexity. I love the exploration of his life and the struggles he has due to his disability, and feel like Joanna Shupe definitely did her homework when it comes to Deaf culture and portraying it authentically, although I will put a caveat that I am not acquainted with anyone in Oliver’s situation and my knowledge of Deaf culture stems primarily from my own research in college through a few courses. That being said, I truly felt for him and the rejection he faced in society, especially since people were so unwilling to view him as anything other than dumb, even to the point of not accommodating him in the asylum, which I understand was a sad reality for many in asylums.

And in spite of Oliver being the stand-out for me, I also admire Christina, and felt she also grew as a character over the course of the book. This poor girl was emotionally abused and manipulated by her money-hungry parents, and it was sad to see how, even after she was married to Oliver, how the mother would still try to manipulate her and how Christina felt she had little choice but to agree. But it was wonderful to see her growth through her love for Oliver and the new friendships she was forming, to speak publicly in Oliver’s defense in spite of her fears.

My one complaint is that so many of the villains seem so cartoonishly awful. I mean, it made me hate them, and I truly felt horrible for both Oliver and Christina for everything they went through, but it got to the point when it was a little too much, what with Christina’s manipulative ex-fiancee, her greedy parents, and Oliver’s spendthrift cousin. It got to the point where, when it reached the “black moment,” I actually questioned whether Shupe was paying homage to Disney with some of these villains (for reasons that will hopefully make more sense to those who read the book). But I can forgive her for the most part, given how she brought it all together in the end.

This book was pure delight, and I can’t wait to read her next book, as Frank is the hero, and he’s actually been one of my favorite parts of this series, as well as being one of the few connecting threads through all three books thus far. That being said, I think if you want to read a Joanna Shupe book, read this one, as it’s history-rich in such a beautiful and poignant way, while also containing one of the most lovely slow-burn romances I’ve read in a while.

Review of “How the Dukes Stole Christmas” by Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Sophie Jordan, and Joanna Shupe

Dare, Tessa, et. al. How the Dukes Stole Christmas. [United States]: Rakes Rogues & Scoundrels LLC, 2018.

Hardcover | $27.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0999192337 | 409 pages | Historical Romance

I was excited by the prospect of four great authors teaming up to work on a holiday anthology together, but also a bit reticent due to the fact that it was yet another historical romance book adding to the endless duke train, especially since the blurbs applied the common adjectives like “surly” and “heartless,” which are catnip for many readers but instead lead me to roll my eyes. However, I was willing to give it a chance, especially since what I heard about it was generally good.

Meet Me in Mayfair by Tessa Dare

4.5 stars

Tessa’s contribution was definitely better than I expected, given that this is one that blatantly uses the word “heartless” to describe the hero. But to my relief, he’s not, that’s more an assumption on Louisa’s part, since he’s evicting her family from their home. In fact, I like that James does care for the less fortunate due to his background as a younger son and not expecting to gain the title, and being raised in the country, thus having more sympathy for his tenants there. I liked how neither of them being the bad guy gave Louisa and James an opportunity to see from each other’s point of view more quickly. While there were still misunderstandings (and groveling), I liked that story was sweet and fun, and stressed the message of togetherness with one’s family during the holidays.

The Duke of Christmas Present by Sarah MacLean

5 stars

People have been saying this story is the standout of the collection, and I have to agree. Novellas have a limited space to truly make the reader believe in love, and this is one of those that truly did it for me. Eben and Jacqueline have a believable love and good conflict, and it was beautiful watching them get their second chance to be together, given the things that stood in their way the first time.

Heiress Alone by Sophie Jordan

3 stars

This one was my least favorite in the collection, as while it had great ideas, the execution didn’t work well for me. Part of it may have to do with the fact that it’s “based” on Home Alone, one of my favorite holiday films, and it just didn’t live up to the spirit of that (I may be judging this one unfairly for that reason, since I didn’t see any of the other films that directly inspired the other novellas). I wasn’t expecting it to match up scene-for-scene, but I just felt like it was an odd fit, and I felt the humor of that film was missing in this story.

The characters were interesting enough. Calder was nice in that he cared for his servants and for the welfare of a young woman he just met. I also didn’t mind Annis, at least initially.  The story also felt like it relied a bit more on lust than love, and after a while it just felt a bit hard to engage with them, and I ended up skimming a bit towards the end.

Christmas in Central Park by Joanna Shupe

4 stars

This one seems to be the weak link for a lot people, and while it isn’t perfect, I don’t think it’s that bad. To be fair, part of it may be due to the fact that the hero is just called Duke, and he’s a New York newpaper tycoon in the Gilded Age, providing a nice change of pace after the first three. While he is kind of haughty, I like how Shupe explored why he was like this, due to his father being controlling and instilling that work ethic in him. And I love the comparison it evokes with Rose, who has few opportunities due to her class, but needs to work for her livelihood.

The romance itself is a bit rushed, as it progresses from them being employer and employee to a brief affair, then to him firing her, then to him groveling and proposing, and the plot is rife with deception and misunderstandings. That being said, the story was more or less believable in all other aspects. And given the way some in this group of authors have often been involved in speaking out about romance as a denigrated genre, I was glad to see an interaction highlighting how men and the public in general often undervalue women’s writing, and romance in particular.

***

I would recommend this anthology to fans of historical romances — especially those who love dukes. Even as someone who doesn’t like them, I found this collection enjoyable and would love to see these authors team up again to do another one.

Review of “Runaway Heiress” (Dare to Defy #1) by Syrie James

James, Syrie. Runaway Heiress. New York: Avon Impulse, 2018. 

Mass Market Paperback | $6.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062849670 | 388 pages | Victorian Romance

5 stars

Syrie James has long been one of my favorite historical fiction authors, especially with the books she published about Jane Austen. So, I was excited to see what her take on historical romance would involve. And fortunately, it is right up my alley, in terms of having a lot of elements I like.

For one, I have to praise Thomas’ characterization. The genre is full of jaded rakes with dark pasts, and the solution for the impoverished historical romance hero, as was often the case for their real life counterparts, was to seek a bride with money. Thomas, however, not only refuses to do this and works in his own way to earn his living, but carries around baggage from his past without it consuming every moment we’re in his head as is often the case with heroes of that type. I like that even though he’s in a bad situation, he doesn’t dwell on it overmuch but tries to move forward, although that does not make him perfect, given his dislike for American heiresses.

I also love the way the story charted Alexandra’s development. She’s never immature, but she was definitely more sheltered at the beginning, and I love how she finds a way to connect with Julia and Lillie in a way the other governesses can’t, along with Thomas. While this is a frequently used plot device in novels with governesses, her sphere of experience adds a new layer to the narrative.

I can’t wait to see what Syrie James does next, and while it definitely looks like Alexandra’s sisters are getting their own books, judging by the recently released Summer of Scandal, I hope that a book or two is in the cards for Julia and Lillie soon too. I would recommend this to fans of historical romances that put refreshing spins on old tropes.

Review of “From This Moment” by Elizabeth Camden

Camden, Elizabeth. From This Moment. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2016. 

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0764217210 | 350 pages | Christian Fiction/Historical Romance

5 stars

From This Moment is another great book by Elizabeth Camden. As she often does with her books, she combines a compelling romance (this time there are two) and a plot that’s full of suspense to make a wonderful story with character growth and many twists and turns.

Both Romulus and Stella are such layered characters and I like that. Romulus is something of a flirt, and he embodies a trope that I often dislike, that of the man jaded against love due to past experiences. But as I got to know him, I loved what made him different from others of a similar type, like his devotion to his profession and his little quirks, like how, near the end, when he’s meant to be planning a surprise for Stella, he ends up becoming distracted playing baccarat.

With Stella, I loved how her experiences taught her to see things from a different perspective. She had been so focused on furthering her career, she did not prioritize keeping her faith, and her journey to find answers leads her to make comparisons to how her sister did things in her pursuit of doing what was right.

While it can be hard for a second couple to play a large role in romance, I loved Evelyn and Clyde. Their story is very much an example of the possibility of loving despite the potential for things to go wrong, and sticking it out even when it does. I especially found it beautiful when you see the final scene with them near the end and you get a sense of how Clyde’s recovery is progressing, and that, despite it all, they will be all right.

The mystery was well-plotted, and constantly kept me guessing with each new revelation. Upon finding out what really happened, I was left in shock and sadness, due to the fact that more than one innocent lost their life, and the way the others involved were affected.

I would recommend this book to fans of Christian fiction with a bit of mystery, or to historical fiction/mystery fans in general.