Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsLately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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Day 1150: Snowdrift and Other Stories

Cover for Snowdrift and Other StoriesI keep saying I love Georgette Heyer, so of course when a volume of her short stories appeared on Netgalley, I requested it. Originally, the story collection was released as Pistols for Two, so I’m sure I read it years before but did not remember the stories.

Each of these stories is a romance in miniature. They involve some of Heyer’s hallmarks—cases of mistaken identity, elopements gone wrong, accidental encounters, and a couple of duels. Appealing heroines meet attractive men usually while they are engaged in some mistaken folly.

link to NetgalleyThese are delightful, light stories, perfect for a rainy day and a cup of tea. This is a very short review, but if you like a charming romance laced with humor, you can’t go wrong with Georgette Heyer.

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Day 1148: A Strange Scottish Shore

Cover for A Strange Scottish ShoreHere I go again, starting a series at the second book. This time, I wasn’t aware it was part of a series until I went to enter it in Goodreads as currently reading. In some cases, it being the second in a series doesn’t matter, but if A Strange Scottish Shore sounds appealing to you, I advise that you start with the first Emmaline Truelove book, A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. I might just try to find a copy myself.

A lot is going on here, and it takes a while to figure out all of it. It is 1906, and Emmaline Truelove works for Max, the Duke of Olympia, in charge of some type of foundation. Emmaline is a practical, down-to-earth person, but she is helping Max try to learn about a power he doesn’t understand, the ability to move people through time.

Emmaline is on her way to Scotland with important documents when she meets two different men. A ginger-haired man seems to be stalking her until Lord Silverton comes to her train compartment. Lord Silverton, with whom she has had adventures in the previous book, is a handsome man with a reputation with the ladies, so Emmaline can hardly believe him when he claims to have fallen in love with her. Nevertheless, she spends the night with him, only to awaken the next morning and find her papers gone.

In Scotland, Emmaline and Max are summoned to a castle in the Orkney Islands to view a suit that the owner found hidden in a secret compartment of a chest that hasn’t been opened in centuries. The suit sounded to me like a wetsuit, which of course hasn’t been invented yet in 1906. The castle has a legend of the founder of the family having been married to a selkie, so Emmaline and Max begin calling it a selkie suit.

link to NetgalleyIn the meantime, Lord Silverton has disappeared. Emmaline finds clues that he has been in this castle at another time. She concludes that Max inadvertently sent him back in time, so she talks Max into sending her back for him.

This novel features a redoubtable heroine, a nasty villain, and plenty of action, plus time travel! If this sounds like your thing, you will probably enjoy the combination of historical novel, speculative fiction, action, and romantic suspense.

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Day 1147: The Light of Paris

Cover for The Light of ParisEleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters, was just original enough to keep it interesting. Sadly, The Light of Paris is all too predictable.

Madeleine has never felt comfortable in her privileged life of debutantes and charity committees. When she was in high school, all she wanted to do was paint, but her mother considered her painting trivial. She finally married Phillip to please her mother and lives in a cold, sterile Chicago condo with a husband who insists on having everything his way.

Madeleine decides to take a break from Phillip, so she goes to visit her disapproving mother in Magnolia, her home town. She finds her mother preparing to sell the house. In helping her, Madeleine discovers her grandmother Margie’s diaries from her youth.

Margie is a naive, romantic young woman who is also a failed debutante in 1924. Her family considers her an old maid, and when she refuses the unromantic proposal of her father’s middle-aged business partner, they send her off to Paris to chaperone a difficult acquaintance, Evelyn. Evelyn almost immediately abandons her to go off on her own, but after some hesitation, Margie decides to get a job and stay in Paris.

While reading her grandmother’s story, Madeleine begins to work through her own issues, all the while wondering how the Margie from her diary became the distant woman she remembers.

Madeleine’s family secrets are fairly guessable, as is the resolution to the novel. That didn’t bother me so much as some other issues. A small point, perhaps, but in those days no one would have sent a 23-year-old unmarried girl to chaperone an 18-year-old. If Margie was 40, maybe.

A larger issue is my utter lack of sympathy with Madeleine’s problems. Many people seek the approval of their parents, but to think that Madeleine could see no alternative but her Junior League upbringing and marriage to Phillip is ridiculous in this day. I’m sure there are a few women in pearls and twinsets still around, but Brown has set this portion of the novel in the 1990’s, not the 1950’s. I had no patience with this heroine. She needed to grow a backbone when she was 16, not when she was in her 30’s.

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Day 1146: Birdcage Walk

Cover for Birdcage WalkLizzy Fawkes has a close relationship with her mother, Julia, who has worked all her life for the rights of common men. She revolted against her family’s guidance, though, in the choice of her husband, John Diner Tredevant, a property developer. Julia thinks him too concerned with money, while he thinks Julia’s support of the French revolution is naive. Unfortunately, because Lizzy was so adamant to have John, or Diner as he prefers to be called, she cannot confide to her mother her occasional doubts, as Diner behaves in a controlling manner.

Readers already know that at the beginning of the novel, a man murdered a woman and buried her in the woods near the gorge of the Avon River. Diner is building his homes in Bristol overlooking that gorge, and we slowly come to fear that he may have murdered his first wife, Lucie.

link to NetgalleyWith the success of the revolution comes the threat of war with France, and buyers back out of their agreements to purchase Diner’s houses. Diner’s behavior becomes erratic.

This novel is a real page turner. It makes the fourth Dunmore novel I’ve read, each one better than the last. It builds up a lot of suspense as you wonder what Lizzie’s fate will be.

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Day 1143: Cousin Kate

Cover for Cousin KateCousin Kate was one of the novels that I could read for the 1968 Club, during which we read books for the year chosen. Since I love Georgette Heyer, I was delighted to reread it.

Heyer’s Regency romances usually fit into one of two categories—straight romance or romantic suspense—both laced with humor and wit. Cousin Kate fits in the latter category.

Kate Malvern returns with some dismay to the home of her nurse, Sarah Nidd. She has lost her position as governess, because her employer’s brother made an offer of marriage. As she continues looking for a new position, she realizes her lack of success is due to both her lack of credentials and her good looks. She begins to talk wildly of taking a job as an abigail or a seamstress.

Kate’s mother’s family cut her mother off when she married Kate’s ramshackle father. But Kate’s father had a half-sister whom Kate has not met, Lady Broome. Unbeknownst to Kate, Sarah writes to Lady Broome hoping she will offer Kate a home.

She does, but shortly after arriving at the stately Staplewood, Kate realizes it is not a happy home. Sir Timothy is in frail health and lives in his own wing. Nineteen-year-old Torquil is also subject to headaches and extremely volatile in his behavior. He is constantly attended by either his man, Badger, or Dr. Delabole. Lady Broome claims to have work for Kate, but the household runs smoothly, and Kate, used to being active, is soon bored. Lady Broome also showers her with gifts, which makes her uncomfortable.

1968 club logoSir Timothy’s nephew, Philip, arrives. At first, he seems disdainful of her, but soon he is urging her to leave. She does not see how she can do so without seeming ungrateful and hopes there will be something she can do for Lady Broome. Little does she know that there is.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated the truly silly humor of some of Heyer’s funnier novels most. So, Cousin Kate is not one of my favorites. That being said, it still features an engaging heroine, witty dialogue, and an interesting plot. It is hard to go wrong with Heyer for a light, cozy read.

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Day 1142: Bloodline

Cover for BloodlineI have to admit that my attention span wavered during parts of Bloodline, Conn Iggulden’s third Wars of the Roses novel. I found the emphasis on war in the first half of the book less interesting than the political maneuvering that occupied most of the first two novels. And a good portion of the middle of the novel is just about one battle, which, even though some interesting and important things happened during it, was still a battle, related in too much detail. It was only the last section, after the crowning of Edward IV, that somewhat reignited my interest.

The novel begins with Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s wife, in ascendance, even though Henry is a captive of the Yorkists. She has gathered together a huge army, even bringing in Scots from up north. But she has made a mistake in letting her army loot every town and village they’ve passed on the way to London. For, when she gets to London, the city won’t let her in.

The Yorkists, now led by Richard of Warwick, are gathering their forces to fight her. Meanwhile, Edward of York, the young man whose father was made the heir to the throne by Parliament, is both goofing off and grieving for his father. But Edward finally decides to pull himself together, and when he does, he declares himself king.

Towton is a decisive battle in this segment of the Wars of the Roses. After it, Margaret has to flee, and Edward begins his reign. Ironically, his choice of bride in the rapacious Elizabeth Woodville creates the same problems for him as Margaret of Anjou’s favoring of the Percys did for Henry VI.

Like the other novels, this one shifts its viewpoint from one character to another, but it is mostly from the point of view of Richard of Warwick. I had some sympathy for Richard, but I missed Derry Brewer, who fades out of the novel in the middle after being a major character in the other two books.

All in all, I think this novel could have been much shorter. It flagged in several places. Despite the roving narration, you don’t really get to know any characters well. If there is going to be a fourth book in the series (the wars aren’t over, after all), I think I’ll skip it.

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