The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – Book Review

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of Macmillan

Cora Cash is just about as close to royalty as an American can get. Her family isn’t old money, but they’re wealthy enough to be the talk of the town – and own a mansion in Newport that makes the Vanderbilt estate look miniscule. Even so, Cora’s mother is always looking for the next step to improve her family’s standing, and she’s fairly sure she has found it in Europe: a title. Rich American girls are all the rage among Europe’s cash-strapped gentry, to the point where there is actually a publication in the States listing those titled men looking hardest for an heiress. After all, who but a duke could be worthy of the Cash family’s only child? Luckily for Mrs. Cash’s plans, the Duke of Wareham happens upon Cora when she is injured in the woods while riding, and before long the two are engaged. It isn’t long, though, until Cora discovers that she is not quite as prepared for this life as she believes herself to be.

Daisy Goodwin’s American Heiress is a fun and engaging read. Nobody is particularly likable – the closest is Cora’s maid Bertha, Cora herself is quite spoiled – but Goodwin still manages to evoke some empathy for those characters who find themselves in situations they don’t entirely understand. The time period was believable, as was the fairly dramatic plot, both of which contributed to the cotton candy can’t-stop-reading aspect. At close to 500 pages, though, it was just too long. Considering it was much more plot-driven than character-driven, not enough happened to justify that length of book. Quite a bit could have been cut down to create a tighter story.

American Heiress is a flawed but interesting novel. Certainly the concept of Gilded Age American heiresses infusing a generation of British nobility with money is a fascinating – and true – one.

The American Heiress is the SheKnows Book Club pick for May.

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Source: Publisher, for the SheKnows Book Club.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd – Book Review

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins

This is the second book in the Bess Crawford series. I previously reviewed the first book, A Duty to the Dead.

Transporting injured troops back to England is one way to temporarily escape some of the horrors of war, although bringing home grievously injured men has horrors of its own, particularly when the men have been disfigured. One such soldier is Meriwether Evanson. Horribly burned in a plane crash, Meriwether is on suicide watch, but seems to be buoyed by the thought of his wife, whose picture he keeps pinned to his uniform. After looking at Marjorie Evanson’s picture pinned to Meriwether’s coat for days, Bess Crawford has her face basically memorized and cannot fail to recognize the woman when she runs into her at the train station, even though Marjorie is sobbing and pleading with a man who seems completely uninterested. Bess is headed back to France and war, but before long the news reaches her that Marjorie was murdered later that same day, and Meriwether killed himself with grief. Having witnessed the teary scene at the train station, Bess feels involved, and is determined to find out who murdered Marjorie.

The Bess Crawford series is really shaping up to be a good one. In An Impartial Witness, we once again find Bess pulled into a situation in which she never intended to find herself. After A Duty to the Dead, it is not surprising that Bess can’t bear to sit on the sidelines and simply trust that everything will get sorted out. She shows herself to be strong and smart, if occasionally not as cognizant as danger to herself as she should be. The highlight of An Impartial Witness, though, may be Bess’s back and forth relationship with Simon, her father’s right hand man. Their relationship is one of mutual respect, and his support for her intelligence and skills is particularly attractive considering the book is set in 1917. He is protective of Bess without being smothering or infantalizing her. I have to say, I really, really hope there’s a romantic relationship between them in the future, because I adore their interactions  and am not sure that many other men would fully accept and support the strong woman Bess is.

If I wasn’t participating in Book Club Girl’s Book Time with Bess readalong, I probably would just read the rest of this series straight through, but I’m trying to hold off so I can participate in the discussions more fully.  Still, I’m looking forward immensely to the third book, A Bitter Truth, and the soon-to-be-released fourth book, An Unmarked Grave. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Contest run by publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Sister Queens by Julia Fox – Audiobook Review

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox, narrated by Rosalyn Landor
Published in audio by Random House Audio, published in print by Ballantine Books, both imprints of Random House

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister, offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right.

Thoughts on the story:

Fox recounts the stories of Katherine and Juana in a clear and straightforward manner, making Sister Queens both fascinating and easy to understand. One thing I particularly appreciated was her nuanced view of Katherine of Aragon. Katherine is generally portrayed as a saint in historical fiction, a woman completely beyond reproach who would never let a falsehood cross her lips for fear of offending her God. Fox disputes this stereotype, while still acknowledging the importance of religion in Katherine’s life, and the religious implications of her fight to save her marriage and her adopted country from Henry’s break with the church and Anne Boleyn’s Protestant leanings. Juana’s story is also put forth in an interesting manner, but as less that Fox recounted shocked or surprised me I was slightly less captivated by it. Fox is not afraid to admit where the historical record is lacking enough that nothing can be said with certainty – was Juana mad? did Katherine and Arthur consummate  their marriage? – and reevaluates such questions throughout the narrative as events continue to unfold, encouraging readers to consider the entirety of the evidence, rather than simply the propaganda put forth throughout the centuries. Fox keeps the sisters’ stories moving forward, while still engaging in a good amount of historical depth, it is really very well done.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Rosalyn Landor fit this history very well, with her elegant and poised narration. For more, please see my AudioFile Magazine review.

Overall:

A fascinating history, and a well-produced audiobook. Either way you win, I think.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Print*
Indiebound: Print*
Audible

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: AudioFile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd – Book Review

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
Published by Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins

This is the first book in the Bess Crawford series.

As a nurse aboard a WWI hospital ship, Bess Crawford feels a duty towards her patients. Some more than others, of course. Arthur Graham was one such patient. Well loved not only by Bess, but by the entire hospital staff, Arthur was a man Bess could have pictured herself marrying – had only he survived. But even now that he is dead, Bess still feels that she must respect his final wishes and deliver a cryptic message to Arthur’s brother Jonathan, “Tell my brother Jonathan I lied. I did it for mother’s sake, but it must be set right.” While delivering the message to the Grahams in Kent, Bess finds herself drawn first into two medical emergencies and then into the mystery of an old murder. All may not be as it seems at the Graham’s estate.

In many ways, it is difficult not to draw comparisons between the Bess Crawford and Maisie Dobbs series. Both involve women who are or were WWI nurses, and both involve the solving of mysteries. Thus far, at least, Bess stumbles into her mysteries, instead of approaching them deliberately as Maisie does. In many ways, Bess is also more self-assured. Unlike Maisie she was born into the life of relative privilege and status she currently enjoys, and thus is not forced to work through the slightly angsty class mobility issues that Maisie has.

It is, of course, not fair to A Duty to the Dead to only compare it to another series, though, it must stand on its own. It does this quite well, really. The story moves along believably; it would have been easy for Bess’s entry into the Graham family mystery to come off feeling contrived, but the events of the plot flow naturally and with the character traits that Todd establishes for Bess, it would have been less believable had she not gotten involved. The first books in long-running series occasionally suffer from too much desire on the part of the author to create the character and setting (I refer partly to Maisie Dobbs, the first book in the series of the same name, which almost failed to compel me to move ahead in a series I now adore), but Todd manages to work the setting and character development into the plot so that the story isn’t bogged down in the service of the following books.

All in all, a strong and intriguing start to a new-to-me series. I can’t wait to read the next one! Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Being Lara by Lola Jaye – Book Review

Being Lara by Lola Jaye
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins

At 30, Lara is finally fairly comfortable with who she is. Sure, she’s still terrified of commitment, and of getting too close to anyone, but she is finally secure in her identity, as the adopted daughter of Trish and X Reid, as a daughter whose skin tone is vastly different from that of her parents. No longer is Lara particularly interested in knowing anything about her birth mother, and never has she been curious about her birth country, Nigeria. All of this changes, however, when Lara’s birth mother, Yomi, shows up unexpectedly at her 30th birthday party. Now, for the first time, Lara is forced to think about her past and who she really is.

Despite the name, Being Lara is not simply Lara’s story. Much of the book is actually from the perspective of Trish and Yomi, Lara’s adoptive and birth mothers. These sections with their alternate viewpoints may just save Jaye’s book, because Lara is, at the beginning of the book in particular, a bit difficult to take. Actually, she’s more than just a bit difficult to take, and if she had been the only focus of the book, chances are good that I would have abandoned it in frustration. Despite her happy family and the fact that she seems to be well-adjusted, she is incredibly immature and naive, overly stuck in her ways, and about as proficient at romantic relationships as a teenage boy.  Obnoxious, and so flawed as to seem like a cliche instead of a living character. Luckily, her mothers’s stories – particularly Yomi’s story – add interest and give the reader something with which to sympathize.

Eventually Lara becomes more life-like and easier to relate to, but it does take time, making the reader exceptionally glad for the way that Yomi and Trish’s stories intersect hers. This is a book that is more concerned with plot than prose, and that does come through. Jaye’s writing is solid, but it fails to overcome any apathy the reader might feel towards the storyline or the characters. There is also – in the advance copy, a least – a continuity problem, wherein Lara and her best friend take a cab to her birthday party , and then Lara tears out of there in her own car after her birth mother surprises her. This may have been caught before the final, but as they took a cab for a very specific reason, it would have required some re-writing.

Although Being Lara is an interesting story with a satisfying conclusion, the first half in particular failed to impress me as much as I hoped it would.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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