Review of “The Golden Hour” by Beatriz Williams

Williams, Beatriz. The Golden Hour. New York: William Morrow, 2019. H

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062834751 | 468 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

I find myself a bit conflicted about The Golden Hour, as I often do when it comes to Beatriz Williams books. I love that she writes books with complex, interwoven plots that can take a while to come together, but sometimes it works better than others. And this is a case where some of the more minute things worked, but I found that while there was some payoff, given the fact that it doesn’t really pick up until the last one hundred pages, I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of her prior books.

Conceptually, the book is great, highlighting a topic I knew nothing about: when the Duke of Windsor served as Governor of the Bahamas during World War II. I had heard about some of his and the Duchess’ more questionable connections during the World War II period and the years preceding it (which are alluded to, but not discussed heavily, in the book), but it was fascinating to find out that he was given another political appointment following his abdication. And the fact that there’s an unsolved murder that occurred during his tenure, which formed one of the more interesting elements of the book once it FINALLY kicked into high gear surely did not help his reputation in that regard.

Because of all this, I found the 1940s chapters compelling, even if there was an incredibly slow build up to the excitement discussed in the blurb, and, adding to my frustration, there were two narratives, a sort of “Before” and and “After” following that period’s heroine, Lulu, which aided in suggesting what would happen on her end, but did not help the pacing.

And while I did like the tie-in with the early 1900s/World War I heroine, Elfriede (who, in typical fashion, also serves as the connection to another of Williams’ books), the ending both confused me and let me down, as if it was meant to be two books. Her narrative prior to that was compelling in its own right, with her own love affair with some tragic undertones and questions revolving around the whereabouts of her beloved, who went off to war. But, aside from the initial familial connection between the two arcs, with Lulu falling in love with Elfriede’s son, I felt the ending which purports to bring it all together was a little too confusing.

This is still a great read, and there were things I really enjoyed, like the historical context and some elements of both story arcs, but perhaps I just picked it up at the wrong time for me when I wasn’t necessarily in the mood for a read like this one. But I would still recommend it, especially to readers who have more consistently enjoyed Williams’ past work, or those who are in the mood for a more complex, multi-layered historical fiction read.

Advertisements

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 “The Girl From the Savoy” by Hazel Gaynor

Gaynor, Hazel. The Girl from the Savoy. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062403476 | 419 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

The Girl from the Savoy is definitely Hazel Gaynor’s weakest book, in my opinion, not to mention the one I kept putting off, since the writing style was told from multiple perspectives all in first person present tense. But surprisingly, the prose itself isn’t a massive issue, despite the fact that the voices of the characters aren’t always easy to distinguish from one another. In fact, once I got into it, I became absorbed in the drama of Dolly and Loretta’s lives, and how they mirror each other, as well as offering contrasts to one another. I love that this book was at its core about two women’s growth and finding of themselves, with one at the start of a promising acting career and another at her peak and dealing with a dark secret that threatens that.

That being said, this book is something of a mess at times, and I felt unsure of what it was trying to accomplish. I can understand wanting to convey something from Dolly’s past, but while I appreciated the way it delved into her past with another character, Teddy, and their troubled romance, due to World War I, I found myself confused as to why chapters from Teddy’s POV were included, and dating back several years before the start of the main action of the book. It also presented me a kind of false hope, as while Gaynor isn’t writing a romance, the way this relationship between Teddy and Dolly was built up felt not only like a first love but something where they would eventually come back to one another. So when it did not work out that way, while I could respect that Dolly was shown as a strong heroine, I was upset that this possibility had been suggested, at least from my interpretation of it.

While I definitely enjoyed this one a bit less than Gaynor’s other work, I did still feel like it was a decent book to pass the time, and deals with deep topics, even if I feel like it tries to take on more than it can handle. I would recommend this book to someone who is looking for a decent historical novel with depth, but it also fairly easy to get into.

Review of “The Glass Ocean” by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White

Williams, Beatriz, et. al. The Glass Ocean. New York: William Morrow, 2018. 

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062642455 | 408 pages | Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

The second Willig, White, and Williams collaboration, The Glass Ocean, once again shows the writing talents of all three authors, as well as their remarkable ability to write a novel that flows well together in a seamless manner, just as they did with their previous effort. And once again, I was delighted with the characters and the twists and turns the interweaving narratives brought along the way.

My investment with the past storyline on the Lusitania evolved over time. At first, when I thought this was going to be a love triangle story where one of the participants was also married, and the husband is not a part of the triangle (perhaps it’s a love square instead?) I was skeptical. And while that is a plot point, I enjoyed that it panned out in a way I didn’t expect, especially given the fact that, while Caroline does have passionate feelings for Robert from their long acquaintance, she also does love her husband. And despite Robert’s lingering feelings for Caroline, he does establish a relationship with Tess as well, although for some reason, I still did not expect things to turn out the way it did. I am happy with the somewhat unconventional happy ending, however.

The present day storyline with Sarah and John, was fun, although I enjoyed it more for the aspect of connecting the dots of what eventually happened with Robert Langford and the others than most of the plot elements of that arc itself. But that’s not to say these elements weren’t worth reading at times. I did like the early scene where Sarah discovers she’s visiting a book club who pirated her book, as it’s something a lot of authors can relate to, and more readers should be aware of its impact on authors, not to mention the difference between a legitimate library that paid for the book and a pirate site.

I was also once again mystified as to who wrote what, as initially, the setup for Sarah’s arc felt reminiscent of Willig’s Pink Carnation series. Will they ever reveal who wrote what for either of their books, especially since some of the readers more well-versed in their backlists may have figured it out? I have a few of my own educated guesses, based on what I’ve read from all three of them, although I’d still love to know sometime down the road.

Regardless, it is a wonderful collaboration, and I think fans of any of their books, or fans of multi-timeline historical fiction will love it.

Review of “As Bright as Heaven” by Susan Meissner

Meissner, Susan. As Bright as Heaven. New York: Berkley, 2018. 

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | 978-0399585968 | 400 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

As Bright as Heaven is a wonderful book that depicts the bleak nature of the last year of World War I and the year of the Spanish flu pandemic, and the lingering legacy both had on a family and their circle of acquaintances in a poignant way. It is a moving book, and one that definitely surprised me in how much I enjoyed it.

While it did take a little while to get into the flow of the story, given the fact that it alternates between multiple first person viewpoints, as soon as I was invested in this family’s plight, I wanted to see them come out of this with a happy outcome, and was dismayed with each tragedy and setback. And I love how the threads of the story, while being vaguely connected through the girls being sisters, come together in a deeper way toward the end to answer a lingering question throughout the book.

However, I did feel at times that the narrative style of first person with a mix of present and past tenses (often feeling a bit like a journal) meant I had to suspend my disbelief as the girls could be unreliable narrators. While this works in the case of Maggie and the secret of Alex’s family, it made me feel uneasy as the hints of romance between Evie and Conrad became more obvious, given that Conrad is, for most of the time Evie knows him, married to a mentally incompetent woman who the reader is given little information about. Given the standards for mental health care at the time this story is set, I am a bit suspicious, and regardless of the former wife’s state of health, it is technically infidelity, which doesn’t sit well with me.

 

Review of “A Song Unheard” (Shadows Over England #2) by Roseanna M. White

White, Roseanna. A Song Unheard. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-7642-1927-6. $15.99 USD. 

5 stars

What a wonderful, unique book, and perhaps even better than the prior book. While all of Roseanna White’s previous historicals have largely focused on the years leading up to the war, this one distinguishes itself even from its predecessor by the amount of historical detail we get about the early days of the war, especially its impact of the Belgian people, a story that doesn’t get talked about when looking at the history of the First World War.

At the center of it are two compelling leads. Willa was introduced in the first book, and while she could have easily been hard to like, given her stubbornness and prickly nature, White makes us root for her. And what I also loved was that she didn’t focus on having Willa reunite with either parent who abandoned her, as some other books of this type have done, as Willa has found a surrogate family that loves her in the form of Rosemary, Barclay, Pauly, and the others…and now Lukas.

Lukas is also refreshing hero to read about. I already approved of White’s choice to focus on non-aristocratic characters for this series, but with Lukas we also have a hero with a rakish past whose transformation into a more sober individual feels realistic. It can often be hard to believe that just falling in love will alter a rake’s trajectory in life, but White gives Lukas a very sympathetic transformation, affected by many factors of the environment that he was going through, and I respect that.

 

Review of “Last Christmas in Paris” by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Gaynor, Hazel and Heather Webb. Last Christmas in Paris. New York: William Morrow, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-256268-5. $14.99 USD. 

5 stars

This book was recommended through one of my book groups, so I decided to give it a chance. And I am happy I did. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be “unputdownable,” as the epistolary format means that you inevitably find yourself devouring letter after letter from these engaging characters.

Gaynor and Webb manage to capture what it is like for both the men at the front at those left at home during World War I, touching on subjects such as shell shock, the effects of war propaganda, and the loss of loved ones. The book is also very much an ode to the largely lost art form of letter writing in itself, as we see both the benefits and the disadvantages to the form play out within the story.

The latter truly comes into play at the end, culminating a climax which brought me to tears (if you pick this book up, I challenge you not to cry as you read the final pages). And it has a lot to do with the investment you feel for the characters, especially Tom and Evie. I did not expect to feel so attached to the characters, given that we are largely cut off from aspects the characters don’t choose to share, due to the format of the novel, but I actually was invested in the hope that they would end up together, even though I felt I shouldn’t expect it

Review of “A Name Unknown” (Shadows Over England #1) by Roseanna M. White

White, Roseanna. A Name Unknown. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-7642-1926-9. Print List Price: $15.99.

4 stars

Picking up this book made me so happy, for a few different reasons. For one, I loved her previous series, and this one definitely showed that she was going in a different direction in terms of the types of characters she was writing, while still keeping the elements I fell in love with, that being the seamless blend of romance and mystery. And for more superficial reasons, which I expect I will go into in a post sometime in the future, I was delighted to see a book that surpassed 400 pages, when it's rare to see books that make it to the 300 page mark, particularly in the romance genre, without padding with annoying and deceiving excerpts. But I digress.

One of the best features of this book is the main characters. While the leads of her Ladies of the Manor series could be somewhat hit-or-miss, both Rosemary and Peter are likable, but still flawed, characters. Rosemary's upbringing has caused her to be the token character who struggles with her faith, a common feature of many inspirational romances, but I don't begrudge White for using this trope, as she fleshes Rosemary out with traits that make her strong, like her love for her rag-tag family, and the way she is able to stand up for herself and for others when she sees a wrong being done. Peter is also a wonderful character who I gravitated toward instantly, because I love shy, awkward bookworm/secret-author heroes.

The story also has a colorful supporting cast, who I anticipate that I will love to see in the next installment, particularly Willa, Barclay, and the rest. I hope they all get their chances at happiness. And all the insights into what the Royal Family was like at the time provided a way of situating the story within the time period.

But while I enjoyed this book, at points I did find the plot a bit uninteresting, especially towards the end when the mystery is being wrapped up. I don't think it detracts from the benefits of the length of the book, however, as it may be because I was just not that interested in all the political goings-on that led up to World War I. But if that is something you enjoy, then you will enjoy those aspects more than I did.

 

Review of Cocoa Beach” by Beatriz Williams

Williams, Beatriz. Cocoa Beach. New York: William Morrow, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-240498-5. Print List Price: $27.99.

5 stars

As I said in my last review of her most recent Juliana Gray book, I have had a complex relationship with Beatriz Williams up to this point, some books being absolutely amazing, some being more “meh,” and as with her previous release, The Wicked City, so uninspiring I couldn’t get far enough into it to justify writing a review.

But this one may be one of her best to date. Something I’ve always found unusual about her is how she loves to play with POV and verb tense, which can be somewhat jarring, even with her prompts as to which character’s eyes we’re seeing it through, or which arc of the story it is. But, with this story following Virginia Fitzwilliam (nee Fortescue, who first appeared in A Certain Age) both in the 1922 timeline when she comes to Florida, and the 1917-19 timeline, which follows her romance gone wrong with her husband, I felt this one flowed much better, with a much greater sense of being in the moment with the present tense, and reliving the past with the use of the past tense.

But like quite a few of her previous books, there’s quite a lot that goes on beneath the surface. Having recently read Rebecca, I found the way different characters had varying perspectives of both Simon and Lydia and their motivations very similar, and I had no idea what to believe, until the truth all came out at the end.

Review of “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” (Schuyler Sisters #1) by Beatriz Williams

Williams, Beatriz. The Secret Life of Violet Grant. New York: Berkley Books, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0-425-28383-7. Paperback List Price: $16.00.

5 stars

I bought this book at Target back when the paperback originally came out, and never got around to reading it. But I ended up really enjoying this one, and this might be my favorite so far.

Much like her other books, this one has two timelines, but this time, it follows two different people, Vivian Schuyler in 1960s New York as she unravels the mystery of her missing great-aunt Violet, and Violet living through the events that lead up to the start of the First World War in 1914. It’s a lovely read, with lots of twists and turns, especially at the end, with a twist I did not see coming.

Something else I loved was that she brought back some of the characters from A Hundred Summers. Lily, the heroine of that book, is Vivian’s second cousin, and Aunt Julie also makes another appearance. While each book can definitely stand alone, it is fun for readers who are familiar with the characters to see them again, especially as she would go on to write more Schuyler books after this one.

One aspect I was unsure of at first was the love triangle bit, between Vivian, Doctor Paul, and Gogo, as it is somewhat reminiscent of a major aspect of the plot of A Hundred Summers. And I even expected Vivian to talk to Lily about it at one point, and for Lily to end up giving her advice. But the two stories go in radically different directions from one another, and Gogo is a much better friend than AHS‘ Budgie.