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Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: 'A Well-Behaved Woman' by Therese Ann Fowler

Published October 2018 by St. Martin's Press
400 pages

This masterfully crafted biographical novel takes us credibly into the mind and heart of a Gilded Age matron more often reviled than praised..

A Well-Behaved Woman follows Alva Vanderbilt Belmont from her own family's downfall through her unhappy marriage to Willie K. Vanderbilt and on to her years at the forefront of America's women's rights movement. It's a long journey, made faster by judicious leaps over years where not much was changing - or not much that she knew of at the time it was happening. While much of Vanderbilt history is generally known from the obsessive tabloid coverage of the late 1800s, and more from the many biographies written since about various family members, Alva was primarily known for her apparently cruel interactions with her daughter, Consuelo.

For decades, all anyone knew of Alva herself was what appeared on the outer side of this intensely private woman: that she was a Southern belle by upbringing, that she was intensely competitive with her sister-in-law, Alice Vanderbilt,' in the matter of houses, that she forced a fragile Consuelo to marry England's most eligible duke despite the girl's pleas, tears, and refusals, that she scandalously instituted a divorce from Willie K. over his near-constant adulteries, and - almost unheard of at the time - came out of it a wealthy woman in her own right. 

This author takes us into the inner layers, credibly revealing a young Alva desperate to recoup her family's fortunes by a good marriage before she and her sisters are left homeless by the death of their near-destitute father. How that early insecurity fed her societal obsession is a recurring theme. Along the way there are glimpses into the constriction of young Society women's lives, from what they wore at each time of day or season through the types of charitable works that were considered suitably genteel to the kind of instruction (or lack of it) they were given about their expected role in the marital bed. While a few infelicitous deeds of Alva's are glossed over or set hastily aside without much effort to excuse or explain, overall the author succeeds in humanizing a woman long seen through a less compassionate lens, and adds convincing psychological underpinnings to the documented rapprochement between Alva and Consuelo following the ill-fated ducal marriage.

If you like watching The Buccaneers or reading about America's Gilded Age, or following women faced with challenging choices and limited acceptable tools with which to extricate themselves, this book may well engage you as deeply as it did me.

Further reading

Consuelo and Alva': An Early Story of Celebrity

Alva Vanderbilt: All Gilt, No Guilt

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: "Alyda’s Bluff" by Cordelia Hare

Alyda’s Bluff
 by Cordelia Hare

An artist’s eye for the compelling detail shapes this novel laid down by a poet’s pen. I read slowly, pondered every word and phrase, savoured the imagery while the tendrils of intricate, human mysteries unfurled almost unnoticed until not knowing became – gently but implacably – unbearable. This historical mystery set on Canada’s Eastern Seaboard is rich in local lore and down-home charm. Shipwrecks, both historical and fictional, herald a dangerous course ahead. Time shifts gracefully and surely from the story’s present backward many decades and forward a few, through three distinct eras, each shift deepening our immersion in the world of our young narrator as well as the history she unearths.

Rianne is back with her grandparents for the summer, filling in time between jobs and clearing her head after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend in the city. Research for a local graveyard tour brings up questions, memories, and uncomfortable parallels between her own life and that of a young woman whose grave is believed to be cursed. Alyda, her coffin held down by a full stone slab and surrounded by a fence of thorny rosebushes, left behind only a few traces: a derelict house, a water-stained scrapbook, and the sad notation of a baby who survived her by only a few days. Yet the more Rianne reads and digs for source material, the more Alyda comes alive for her, and the more Rianne comes alive for us readers.

Seen purely as a mystery, this tale might lose some luster for the method of revealing the crime's solution near the end, but that's a very minor flaw in an otherwise compelling tale that views the milieu of an Anne of Green Gables story unsparingly, through the eyes of a girl forced to maturity beyond her years. 

I was spellbound from very early in this novel, and enjoyed every moment I spent in its pages.

 "Alyda's Bluff" is available at bookstores in Calgary and available online in print and all the usual ebook formats such as Amazon

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review: Wouldn't It Be Deadly - by D.E. Ireland

This first in the crime-solving partnership of Miss Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins was an Agatha nominee, and well deserved. It takes place in the months following Eliza’s successful transformation from Cockney flower-seller to elegant Society lady.

Eliza is trying to get a handle on her new life, living with the professor’s mother while teaching elocution to other people who wish to appear to fit in among a higher social class. There’s good scene-setting and sound period atmosphere, and then whump! A body hits the floor. With both Eliza and Henry quickly rising up the suspect list, they must put aside their animosity and learn to cooperate again. It will take all their combined ingenuity to keep each other off the gallows.

This is a fairly convincing foray into the refined world of Edwardian society, both the high and the low. It maintains a gently humorous tone through much of the book, and, if the solution seems to leap a bit rapidly to the fore toward the end, it’s easy to overlook that in the enjoyment of the journey.

I’m looking forward to diving into the second book, ‘Move Your Blooming Corpse,’ which title, coincidentally, I won in a blog draw the very day I finished off the first book.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond

Here at last is the full cover for my upcoming Steampunk Adventure, "Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond."  Artist credit goes to the immensely vibrant and talented Robin Kaplan (aka The Gorgonist).

The novella is coming out mid-September in ebook and print from Tyche Books in Calgary, although some lucky folks got their hands on the special conference edition this past weekend at the wonderful 'When Words Collide' readers'/writers' festival this weekend.

Back cover reads:

Miss Maddie Hatter, renegade daughter of a powerful Steamlord, is scraping a precarious living as a fashion reporter when the story of a lifetime falls into her lace-gloved hands.  

Baron Bodmin, an adventurer with more failed quests than fingernails, has vanished in circumstances that are odd even for him. 

While he is supposedly hunting the fabled Eye of Africa diamond in the Nubian desert, his expeditionary airship is found adrift off the coast of England. Maddie was the last reporter to see the potty peer alive. If she can locate the baron or the Eye of Africa, her career will be made. 

Outraged investors and false friends complicate her quest, and a fiendish figure lurks in the shadows, ready to snatch the prize . . . at any price.