Review 2141: The Foundling

As a young woman, Bess Bright, a shrimp seller, has a first sexual encounter with Daniel Callard, a merchant. He disappears, leaving her with only a keepsake, half a whalebone heart, and a pregnancy. In 1748 London, she and her father, who already support her lay-about brother, cannot afford to keep the baby, so she takes her newborn daughter to a lottery at a foundling hospital, and she is accepted. She leaves the half heart as an identifier, so she reclaim her daughter.

Six years later, Bess believes she has saved enough money to redeem her daughter. But when she returns to the foundling hospital, she is told that she herself redeemed her daughter one day after leaving her, even identifying the keepsake.

Bess has discovered that Daniel died a few months after their encounter and that he was married. When she goes to consult Dr. Mead of the foundling hospital, he takes her to chapel, where she sees Mrs. Callard. With her is a six-year-old girl that Bess knows immediately is her daughter.

With unwitting help from Doctor Mead, Bess gets a position as a nursemaid with Mrs. Callard. There, she finds a strange household, where no one leaves the house except for the weekly chapel visit. Here the point of view shifts to that of Alexandra Callard, a woman full of fears and given to ritual.

I thought I had read a book by Stacey Halls before, but I was mistaken. I was at first disturbed by the first person narration, because it sounds nothing like a woman of Bess’s time and lack of education. Also, the first person narrative taken up later by Alexandra doesn’t sound like a different person. Hall could have easily avoided this problem by employing limited third person instead.

I got accustomed to the narrative style eventually and was pulled along by the story. However, without saying what it was, I found the ending spectacularly unlikely, especially the sudden change in Alexandra.

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Review 2138: The House of Fortune

It’s 1705, 18 years after the end of The Miniaturist. Nella Brandt is worried about her niece Thea’s future. Although her husband Johannes’s death left them fairly well off, his black servant Otto has not been trusted by Amsterdam businessmen to keep the business running. Instead, Otto has been working for an import company in a low-paying job. They are broke, and the only future Nella can see for Thea is to marry. However, there is the issue of her illegitimate parentage as the daughter of Maris, Johannes’s sister, and Otto, the servant, which the family has kept secret.

Thea has other ideas. She is young and romantic and devoted to the theater, where she has befriended Rebecca, a principal actress. But she hasn’t been spending as much time with Rebecca lately, because she is in love with Walter Riebeeck, a set painter. She disdains Aunt Nella and her attempts at an appearance of respectability, in full teen rebellion.

Nella gets Thea an invitation to a society party in hopes that she’ll meet a young man, and she does meet Jacob van Loos, a young lawyer. At the party, though, Nella believes she senses the miniaturist, whom she has not heard of in 18 years. And Thea receives a miniature of Walter.

Although I didn’t find The House of Fortune quite as fascinating as The Miniaturist, it is still a worthy successor. However, there is so much arguing in the first part of the novel that it put me off, and Nella isn’t sympathetic until later in the novel. Plus, I found Thea to be a spoiled little brat at first and her romantic tragedy all too foreseeable. However, Burton still managed to make the book compelling.

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Review 2113: The Clockwork Girl

I liked Mazzola’s The Story Keeper well enough to try another book by her. This one looked interesting.

In 18th century Paris, Madeleine was forced into prostitution at a young age by her mother and so badly scarred by a customer that she now works in the brothel as a maid. She is determined to escape with her nephew, which is one reason she reluctantly agrees to spy for the police on the household of Dr. Reinhart. She is supposed to find out what he is working on, but once installed there, she finds it difficult to learn anything. Something about Reinhart seems off, but he locks up his secrets. However, his interest is in anatomy and he makes elaborate wind-up animals.

A second narrator, Véronique, is Reinhart’s daughter, newly returned from being raised in a convent. Her father has promised to train her in his work, but time passes and he works only with Doctor LeFevre on some project for the King.

Madeleine hears rumors that children are disappearing off the streets and worries about her nephew.

A third narrator is Madame de Pompadour, who is afraid she is losing the King’s affection and worried about what he is up to.

This novel is fast-paced and eventually gets very creepy, but there are some unlikely aspects about it, especially how neatly everything is resolved. Still, it certainly kept my attention.

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Review 2078: The Silver Collar

Antonia Hodgson states in the Notes to The Silver Collar that she intended to write this novel from the very beginning of the Thomas Hawkins series. The Silver Collar is the fourth book in the series.

It’s 1728. Things are going well for Thomas Hawkins and his beloved Kitty Sparks, but Thomas begins to feel discontented because he is being supported by Kitty’s wealth and her pornographic bookstore. Then the couple quarrel because Thomas learns she has secretly been seeing Magistrate Gonson, who recently got him unjustly convicted of murder.

After they argue, Thomas stomps out. He returns to find out belatedly two things—Kitty is pregnant and Magistrate Gonson has conspired to help her mother, Lady VanHook, kidnap her.

Thomas knows that Kitty is terrified of her mother, whose intentions are twofold—to take over Kitty’s fortune and to torment Kitty. Finding her pregnant adds some spice. Thomas gets help from Jeremiah, a black man whose little daughter is enslaved by Lady VanHook, and from Sam and Gabriela Fleet. They find that Kitty has been incarcerated in an insane asylum, but that’s just the beginning of this fast-moving, adventurous novel.

There was one place where the pace slowed to a slog, and that was in reading Jeremiah’s letter, which was too long and went into too much extraneous detail. Hodgson created a trap for herself when she gave him speech problems, because this section would have worked much better as a dialogue. However, in all, this was an exciting entry in the series.

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Review 2075: The Land Breakers

John Ehle grew up in North Carolina and can trace his ancestry back to one of the first three families to settle the remote western North Carolinian mountains (the Appalachians) in the 18th century. The Land Breakers is the first of a series of seven novels about the families who settled in that area.

It’s 1779: Mooney Wright and his wife Imy have been released from their indentures and are traveling around trying to buy land for a farm. However, no one will sell them land in the more settled areas. They find a store owner who offers them land in the remote western mountains, which have not yet been settled, and almost inadvertently they end up buying 600+ acres.

It is a hard journey to get there, but at last they end up in a pretty valley with soil that has never been cultivated. They are both hard workers, and they set about building a cabin and clearing land for planting the next spring. However, during the winter Imy dies of a sickness, and Mooney sinks into a depression.

Tinker Harrison, a comparatively wealthy man, arrives with his family and slaves the next spring. He wants to establish the valley as a settlement he can control. They arrive shortly after Mooney buries Imy. Following them are Ernest Plover and his family. The Plovers are in-laws to Harrison, because Ernest’s oldest daughter, Belle, married Tinker, although she is younger than Tinker’s son, Grover. Ernest is a shiftless man with seven daughters, the next oldest to Belle being Mina.

Once Mooney starts to come out of his depression, he becomes interested in Mina, who is beautiful but very young. However he has also noticed Lorry, Harrison’s daughter and the mother of two young boys. She married Lacey Pollard, but he left to look for a home in Kentucky four years earlier, and she never heard from him again. Mooney needs a wife to work for and make his plans succeed, and he is torn between the two women.

This novel is a sparely written story of the difficulties faced by those early settlers. These do not so much involve people as problems with wild animals and weather and the sheer remoteness of the area from anywhere else. Occasionally, when describing the landscape, the prose becomes lyrical. With its details of work, it reminded me a bit of the trilogy I read by Tim Pears, although that was set 150 years later. I was interested enough in this novel to order the second in the series.

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Review 2018: A Death at Fountains Abbey

Thomas Hawkins escaped from the gallows at the end of the last book in this series, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, but Queen Caroline is still holding a threat over him—her knowledge that his beloved Kitty is a murderess. The Queen has received a request for help from John Aislabie, who has been threatened by mysterious letters. But Aislabie was the mastermind behind the South Sea Company scam, and the Queen fears that he did not destroy the green ledger of its accounts, which would show how much the Crown gained from the scam while so many others were ruined. So, she sends Thomas ostensibly to help Aislabie but really to search for the ledger. He takes with him Kitty, who now poses as his wife, and his dangerous ward, Sam Fleet.

In Yorkshire, he finds Aislabie behaving like a victim of the South Sea scandal instead of its perpetrator, claiming he took the fall for more important people. Yet he seems to have plenty of money, which he is spending on his horses and his grounds. He is not well liked, claiming common land as his own and proclaiming as poachers the families that have farmed and hunted it for centuries. In fact, Thomas finds no lack of suspects for the nasty threats Aislabie has received.

Another strange situation concerns Mrs. Fairwood, who is living with the Aislabies. She has presented herself as his daughter, thought to have been killed in a house fire thirty years before. As her bona fides she has brought along a letter from a servant who disappeared on the day of the fire and a brooch that belonged to Aislabie’s first wife, who also died in the fire. Mrs. Fairwood is also being threatened.

This is another excellent mystery/thriller in this series with its scapegrace hero and heroine. The series books always seem carefully researched and the settings authentic. The ending is quite suspenseful.

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Review 1872: The Bass Rock

Told in three compelling narratives that take place over centuries, The Bass Rock is a novel about the history of violence toward women. The novel is located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, an area of Scotland dominated by the Bass Rock.

Early in the 18th century, the local priest comes upon some young men raping a very young girl, Sarah. The priest rescues her, but the young men claim she must be a witch because she enchanted them and forced them to do it. Soon, the men have burned down the priest’s house, and the entire household must flee toward the beach.

Post-World War II, Ruth and her husband Peter have recently moved into the big house in North Berwick. Ruth doesn’t quite understand the reason for the move, since Peter works in London. He says it is for the benefit of his sons by his previous marriage, Christopher and Michael, but they are being sent off to school. Soon, newly wed Ruth finds herself left very much on her own with only the housekeeper Betty for company. She begins to discover some secrets in the family.

After Ruth’s death as an old lady, Michael’s daughter Viv is hired by the family to sort through the things left in the house so it can be sold. She has recently had some mental issues and feels like she is the family failure. Almost despite herself, she befriends Maggie, a homeless occasional sex worker who has an interesting take on things. Maggie tells her there is a ghost in the house.

This is a powerful novel. Although its theme is grim, its main characters are relatable and sometimes likable. I loved All the Birds, Singing, and this is another winner from Wyld.

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Review 1852: A Room Made of Leaves

Even from the Editor’s Notes of what purports to be Elizabeth Macarthur’s memoirs, we get a hint of what’s coming—the husband getting the credit for establishing the wool industry in Australia while the wife did all the work. The husband revered as an important founder of the nation when he was actually disliked and hated during his life and was away for many years.

As Elizabeth grows, she loses her family—her beloved father to death, her mother to a second marriage, her grandfather to her own marriage. She learns to hide her real self behind a docile, submissive mask. When she meets Ensign James Macarthur, part of her sees him for who he is, but she is curious and has no prospects, and her curiosity ends in her pregnancy. Her first lesson in her husband’s character comes before marriage—James is more interested in the pursuit than the capture.

James is in fact ferociously ambitious, but his touchiness about his lack of breeding makes him angry enough to work against himself. Elizabeth learns he is vengeful and likes to weave vast conspiracies to advance himself and bring down others. But his judgment is poor.

Posted to Gibraltar, James sees the possibility of a posting at the newly established prison in New South Wales as an opportunity and believes the brochures extolling the new colony. Elizabeth is skeptical, but she handles James poorly and finds herself on her way, again pregnant and with a new baby. However, eventually she discovers opportunity when James finagles 100 acres of Australian land by his manipulations of the governor. She and her two convict servants begin establishing a herd of sheep.

I found this novel vivid and deeply interesting, as Elizabeth learns how to handle her horrible husband and make a satisfying life for herself and her children. The novel evokes the raw early days of the 18th century colony as well as, occasionally, its beauties. I read it for my Walter Scott project and liked it very much.

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Review 1835: Kidnapped

His mother long dead and his father recently having passed away, young David Balfour is ready to set out to seek his fortune. But family friend Reverend Campbell gives him a letter from his father to take to an Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws near Edinburgh. David hopes that if he has a wealthy relative, the man will help him to a career.

When David arrives at Shaws, he finds it incomplete, almost a ruin, and Ebenezer Balfour to be unwelcoming. He is David’s uncle, but right away he sends David up a ruined staircase almost to his death. Then, once his uncle has agreed to go with David to a lawyer, Mr. Rankiller, to discuss David’s inheritance, he has David kidnapped by an unscrupulous sea captain, who is supposed to take him to work as a white slave on a plantation.

North of Scotland, the ship David is on runs over a small boat in a storm, and the only survivor of the boat is Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland Jacobite who has been collecting money for his exiled chief. He has saved his belt full of gold, but David overhears the ship’s officers planning to kill the man for his money. David alerts Stewart, and the two hold off the crew in the roundhouse, ending with a much-depleted crew. Ultimately, this results in a shipwreck.

Beached in the far northwestern Highlands, David and Alan must avoid capture by the English army while they journey to Edinburgh to reclaim David’s inheritance and find Alan another ship for France.

This novel was my favorite Stevenson book as a child, so I was curious how I would view it now. I enjoyed it very much. David and Alan are interesting contrasting characters, and the novel gives a good idea of living in the Highlands in 1751. It’s full of adventure, too, a fun read.

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Review 1753: Faro’s Daughter

Max Ravenscar is exasperated when his aunt, Lady Mablethorpe, comes to consult him about Adrian, his young cousin for whom he is a trustee. She reports that Adrian has fallen in love with a girl from a gambling den and means to marry her. Ravenscar assumes the girl will have to be bought off.

When he meets her in her aunt’s home, which has indeed been converted into a gambling den, he is surprised at her well-bred appearance and demeanor. However, when he makes his offer, he finds she has turned into a termagant.

Deb Grantham, for her part, has no interest in entrapping naïve young men into marriage. Nor is she interested in Lord Ormskirk, who unfortunately holds some of her aunt’s debts and the mortgage to her aunt’s house. However, she is so angered by Ravenscar’s proposals that she decides to pretend she wants to marry Adrian and to behave as vulgarly as possible.

Even though this is not one of my very favorite Heyer novels, it is still great fun. It has some potentially melodramatic twists to it that are saved from seriousness by a feisty heroine who is not to be defeated.

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