Review: Rutherford Park by Elizabeth Cooke

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For the Cavendish family, Rutherford Park is much more than a place to call home. It is a way of life marked by rigid rules and lavish rewards, governed by unspoken desires…
 
Lady of the house Octavia Cavendish lives like a bird in a gilded cage. With her family’s fortune, her husband, William, has made significant additions to the estate, but he too feels bound—by the obligations of his title as well as his vows. Their son, Harry, is expected to follow in his footsteps, but the boy has dreams of his own, like pursuing the new adventure of aerial flight. Meanwhile, below stairs, a housemaid named Emily holds a secret that could undo the Cavendish name.
 
On Christmas Eve 1913, Octavia catches a glimpse of her husband in an intimate moment with his beautiful and scandalous distant cousin. She then spies the housemaid Emily out in the snow, walking toward the river, about to make her own secret known to the world. As the clouds of war gather on the horizon, an epic tale of longing and betrayal is about to unfold at Rutherford Park…

This is a book where I didn’t necessarily like a lot of the characters. A few of the servants were sympathetic and likable, but for the most part all of the main characters are flawed, some to the point of me really disliking them. Patriarch William is a man of his time in his view of his wife and her duty to him and takes little consideration of her feels in anything. The son, Harry, impregnates and abandons a house maid, leading to her suicide. While he’s shown to have guilt over the situation afterwards, the focus is more on how the guilt affects his life and not on him trying to make right the situation he caused. Matriarch Octavia is probably the most sympathetic as she was bullied by an unloving father only to be pushed into a marriage with a man who valued a timid, wealthy wife more than making it known that he actually cared for her. Oldest daughter Louisa is naive and flighty and her uninformed bad choices lead to the culminating crisis of the book. Even the servants aren’t all that likable. The head housemaid is jealous and cruel. One of the butlers is a bully and thorough villain. All of the women in charge of the house including Octavia are shown in a less than flattering light when the pregnant maid’s attempted suicide is more a concern for them because of how it looks rather than what caused the situation.

That all being said, the book itself is a good story. As unlikable characters go, most of them end up being faced with the error of their behaviors, none so more than Louisa. The revenge crafted by the son of William’s former lover is brutal and brilliant in its cruelty. Octavia is able to use her disappointment in her husband to gain more freedom and confidence in herself. One the whole this is an interesting family saga that features a lot of the same dynamic that has made Downton Abbey so popular.

4 out of 5

Review: Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

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On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘World’ newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day —and heading in the opposite direction by train — was a young journalist from ‘The Cosmopolitan’ magazine, Elizabeth Bisland.

Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.

The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers.

‘Eighty Days’ brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Read to accompany These Shallow Graves that focuses on female newspaper reporters and makes mention of Nellie Bly, Eighty Days focuses on the whirlwind trip around the world that made Bly famous. Forgotten by history is Elizabeth Bisland, a young female reporter drafted into turning the trip around the world not only a race against time, but a race against each other. History tends to only favor winners, so Bisland’s part in the saga has been ignored for the most part. And two more different women could not have been asked to complete the task of beating a fictional character. Bly, described as “plucky” and “determined” was Northern, from a poor immigrant background and attacked every career obstacle with a bull headed quality and hint of sensationalism. Bisland was Southern, from a formerly wealthy family, and was actually a literature reviewer. Both women’s backgrounds heavily influenced their view of the people they encountered on their voyages and both women were a product of the times in their view on other ethnicity for the most part.

Perhaps the most interesting part was watching the change that took place in the person of Nellie Bly. Originally made famous as an undercover reporter, the race around the world (and her newspaper’s capitalization to up circulation) turned her into a household name and celebrity. Fame has a way of being fickle and Bly perhaps suffered the most afterwards both unfairly by newspaper editors’ cruelly criticizing her and possibly somewhat fairly in Bly’s rather petty behavior with The World after her trip (another situation possibly brought on by her inadvertently entangling them in litigation over another story she had been involved with). Bisland, though the loser of the race, may have benefited by not having the nation’s critical eye on her afterwards. Both women were determined and remarkable at a time when female reporters were normally relegated to the society pages and were not considered capable of doing the same job as a man. Both women endured plenty of stress and strain attempting to outdo time and both experienced cultures and countries few others had.

4 out of 5

Review: The Visitant by Megan Chance

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After she nearly ruins her family with a terrible misstep, Elena Spira is sent to Venice to escape disgrace and to atone by caring for the ailing Samuel Farber. But the crumbling and decaying Ca’ Basilio palazzo, where Samuel is ensconced, holds tragic secrets, and little does Elena know how profoundly they will impact her. Soon she begins to sense that she is being watched by something. And when Samuel begins to have hallucinations that make him violent and unpredictable, she can’t deny she’s in mortal danger.

Then impoverished nobleman Nero Basilio, Samuel’s closest friend and the owner of the palazzo, arrives. Elena finds herself entangled with both men in a world where the past seeps into the present and nothing is as it seems. As Elena struggles to discover the haunting truth before it destroys her, a dark force seems to hold Samuel and the Basilio in thrall—is it madness, or something more sinister?

For a book claiming to be a “Venetian” ghost story, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of Venice in it. I suppose that’s the point as Elena is pretty much trapped in a moldering marble palazzo with a situation that seems more and more like a possession case than the medical emergency she had assumed she was hired for. It also becomes more clear that the death of the former betrothed of Nero Basilio is a lot more complicated than the initial “accident” everyone claims it is. At its heart, this really is a ghost story. There is no real world explanation for the events, they legitimately are supernatural. The writing is good at keeping the trapped, desperate feel of all the players: Samuel by his epilepsy, Elena by her mistake that leads to an expected marriage to a country cousin as penance, Nero by his poverty and past. Elena is willing to put up with a lot more craziness than a person in her situation generally would based on the fact that she’s absolutely desperate to avoid going straight back home to be buried on a farm milking cows with a man she doesn’t even know for a husband. And by a lot more craziness, I mean nearly getting strangled every other chapter.

The book’s weakest point is its romance in a lot of ways, which is a shame since the last half of the book focuses on that. I think it’s mainly the impression I kept being left with that Elena was a REALLY bad judge of male character. The book tries to argue it away in saying she’s “ripe for seduction”, but it’s more than that. She makes two staggeringly bad romantic decisions, both of which are based on men deceiving her. I would have given her the benefit of the doubt on having that happen once, but twice in one book is starting to look like active ignorance on her part. In her defense it can’t really be helped that she’s being lied to, but on the other hand you’d think she’d be a little more cagey when it comes to believing people (particularly love interests). I suppose this is the Gothic element of the romance (there are more than a few parallels to Crimson Peak here) and I could buy her being misled by the second man if the whole reason her life has gone to hell in a hand basket when we meet her wasn’t because of a guy lying to her. Perhaps that’s a small thing to have really bothered me, but it was enough to make me wish that Elena’s initial “mistake” hadn’t involved almost the same situation that happens to her within the novel itself.

3 out of 5

Review: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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Jo Montfort is beautiful and rich, and soon—like all the girls in her class—she’ll graduate from finishing school and be married off to a wealthy bachelor. Which is the last thing she wants. Jo secretly dreams of becoming a writer—a newspaper reporter like the trailblazing Nellie Bly.

Wild aspirations aside, Jo’s life seems perfect until tragedy strikes: her father is found dead. Charles Montfort accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. One of New York City’s wealthiest men, he owned a newspaper and was partner in a massive shipping firm, and Jo knows he was far too smart to clean a loaded gun.

The more Jo uncovers about her father’s death, the more her suspicions grow. There are too many secrets. And they all seem to be buried in plain sight. Then she meets Eddie—a young, brash, infuriatingly handsome reporter at her father’s newspaper—and it becomes all too clear how much she stands to lose if she keeps searching for the truth. Only now it might be too late to stop.

The past never stays buried forever. Life is dirtier than Jo Montfort could ever have imagined, and the truth is the dirtiest part of all.

I’ve enjoyed Jennifer Donnelly’s work before having read Revolution and thought it was excellent. I would have to say of the two, I enjoyed These Shallow Graves even more. Donnelly crafts not only a good historical fiction, but is also able to create a mystery that sustains itself throughout the novel and has her heroine manage to be intelligent, yet also misjudge things almost tragically several times. Jo is not only trying to solve a mystery, but also come to term with the fact that her options are very limited when it comes to what is expected of her. Her family repeatedly instills the fact that she is expected to marry wealthy and that her marriage is something to be accepted and tolerated, not necessarily enjoyed. Jo is also working against the idea that proper women are delicate, high strung and only allowed to do certain things within the propriety of society. As she is exposed to other women who have either been born into poverty or have made the choice to defy convention, she realizes that though she might be privileged, her freedom is almost nonexistent. The case of what happens to Eleanor Owens is a vivid reminder of what happens to well born women who step outside of what is expected of them. Jo’s outlook changes throughout the novel as she realizes the world she has been limited to has left her with a very narrow view of how things really work.

The only complaint I would have is that the “misunderstanding” that happens in the romance plot is what I would consider an overused device that could easily be avoided if both parties happened to talk to each other. It’s a trope I’ve seen used constantly in romantic movies, but Donnelly feels like a better writer than that. The rest of the novel is a wonderful historical thriller set in late 1800s New York.

4 out of 5

Review: The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s by William Wiser

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For the artists and expatriates, the aristocrats and arrivistes, Paris in the 1930s lost none of its magical allure, as this lavishly illustrated chronicle of a fascinating decade in the city’s cultural history shows. At salons, galleries, palaces, and cafes, Henry Miller, Helena Rubinstein, Anais Nin, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dali, and Katherine Anne Porter joined illustrious exiles of the twenties like Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Pablo Picasso, Janet Flanner, and Man Ray. Jazz orchestrated the city nights, surrealism flourished, haute couture reinvented itself. James Joyce redefined modern literature with Finnegans Wake and at her Chez Josephine Baker redefined the derriere. In a lively narrative, which is accompanied by a superb selection of period photographs, the award-winning author William Wiser follows Elsa Schiaparelli, T. S. Eliot, Peggy Guggenheim, the Windsors, Collette, Jean Cocteau, and a host of other colorful celebrities and literary luminaries through the ten years that continued to foster the creative revolution of the expatriate era in Paris—an era that began extravagantly with Elsa Maxwell’s famous masquerade ball and ended with perhaps the grimmest event in modern French history: the fall of Paris and the Nazi occupation in 1940.

Read to go along with The Dress Thief, this book delves into life in Paris in the 1930s among the artistic elite and wealthy (which is where the novel takes place). It is hard not to notice the pall cast over this decade even while the rich still attempt to cling to their buoyant attitude and the artistic crowd pours forth work that will make them famous. Paris in the 1930s is like the 1920s with the shine knocked off. It’s as if everyone is rushing to get their last hurrah in before the clouds of war swallow everything up, but it’s not the same. Some choose to simply ignore the obvious looming tension in the countries around them, some choose to leave, and some are locked in the violent political turmoil going on in the city. Any way around it, the decade is unsettling and a sense of exhaustion seems to color everything. It’s as if everyone knows another major war is headed their way and that paired with the world wide depression of the time period freezes everyone into an uncomfortable stupor of uncertainty.

The book is an eclectic mix of artists, designers, politicians, and celebrities and their time in Paris during the 1930s. Even with the political tumult of the decade, major artistic efforts were produced, scandals rocked the public, and the day to day bohemian existence of the time period didn’t change much. It is a snap shot of a city in uncertain times. The Dress Thief captures some of the attitude of the era with perhaps a bit more optimism (I feel fairly certain that the thuggish nightclub owner Serge is based in part on Serge Alexandre Stavisky), but the novel cuts off before the real bloom is off the rose in Paris. It’s an interesting study of the elite at a very contentious time.

4 out of 5