Category Archives: Historical

Review: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

4 Stars

Most people associate Queen Victoria in her later years.  A portrait of a serious woman dressed in black, endlessly mourning the loss of her beloved husband.  Most people forget that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne less than a month after her eighteenth birthday.  She came to the throne as a time when most women were more preoccupied on who they were going to marry and learning how to run a household.  This young woman was learning how to govern an empire.  Queen Victoria was small in stature, quiet in voice and had lived a life of seclusion with her mother, far removed from the court and its drama.

Victoria was known by another name to her family.  A hated nickname.  Drina, which was short for her given name, Alexandrina.  She felt she had been kept under the thumb of her mother and Sir John Conroy, her mother’s counsellor.  She had been smothered and hidden away from the world and now that she was Queen, she was now able to be independent for the first time in eighteen years.  She went so far as to move from Kensington Palace to Buckingham House and give her mother apartments as far away from her own as she possibly could.  Much to the chagrin of Sir John Conroy, the young Queen refused to give him a position of power and influence.

Victoria comes to rely on the advice and guidance of her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  She affectionately refers to him as Lord M.  They have to whether many storms together, including scandals that threaten to rock the very foundation of the Monarchy and give those who would rather see a Regent in power than a young Queen more fuel for their ambitious fires.  You watch as Victoria gives her heart away for the first time and the possible scandal that can arise when you love the wrong person.

This version of Victoria is hard for many to read because we are used to the Queen Victoria after she marries the love of her life and after she is already on her way to being one of the most beloved monarchs in the history of Great Brittan.  The author used historical documents, including Queen Victoria’s journals, while researching for this novel.  So the picture that we have of Queen Victoria is that of a young woman, alone for the first time in her life and facing an almost impossible challenge.  You’re led through the ups and downs of the first years of her very long reign and a glimpse into the mind of the woman who would become one of the longest reigning monarchs in English history.  If you can set aside the vision of Queen Victoria that you know from your school history books and the images of her on stamps and coins and just imagine that woman as a young girl, a very young Queen…you will ultimately enjoy this book.

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Review: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

4 Stars

The full title of this book is Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution.  This book focuses on the middle years of the American Revolution and the relationship that George Washington had with the now infamous Benedict Arnold.  Most of us know only what we’ve read in our history books.  That Washington was the hero of the revolution and Arnold was a traitor who defected back to the British when he didn’t get his way.  He became America’s best known traitor and Washington became America’s greatest President.  If only it were that simple.

This isn’t a book for everyone.  This is definitely a book for those who have a love of history and just want to learn more.  It doesn’t read like a novel by any means, but there is still an element of suspense as the reader is taken from the early days of the Revolutionary War and follows the paths of both Arnold and Washington as they make their way through history.  The choices that each of them made changed the course of a war and the building of a nation.

Very few people recognize Benedict Arnold as anything other than a traitor to his nation.  There is no doubt that he was a traitor.  But what led this man, who was once a revered leader and passionate believer in the revolutionary cause, to turn coat and go back to the British side?  He was once hailed as the Hero of Saratoga.  He was injured twice in battle but still begged to be able to do his part for the Cause.  Brash, uncouth and self-important, Benedict Arnold ruffled feathers and rubbed people the wrong way everywhere he went.  He was passed over for promotion repeatedly and he felt that he was not being used to his potential.

This book takes you into the events that led up to Arnold’s decision to turn away from the American cause and go back to the side of the British.  He believed he was doing the right thing, or at least that was how he was trying to spin it.  Benedict Arnold had only one cause, himself.  The selfish whims of one man nearly brought about the end of the fight for independence.  Instead of bringing about the downfall of the American fight for their independence, his actions brought about a change in how most citizens felt about this long war and only strengthened their resolve to win this war.

I would recommend this to anyone who has a love of history and a fascination with the Revolutionary War.  My only dislike was that it wasn’t totally linear in fashion, it did jump around quite a bit and lots of back and forth.  But it was still a very good read and gives new insight into who Benedict Arnold was and what his motivations were.  There is an extensive bibliography at the end as well as portraits and drawings of the key figures and events.

 

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Review: Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

5 Stars

I will readily admit that I have the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat most days.  I have memorized every line.  I will admit without shame or embarrassment that I’m quite addicted to this work of art and hope that someday I’ll be able to see the production in person.  For now, I’m going to make due with reading Hamilton: The Revolution.  Ok, I’ll probably read it more than once…or twice…

For starters, the book itself is absolutely beautiful.  In recent years, most of my purchases have been e-books and the random paperback.  It has been awhile since I’ve purchased a hardcover book and I can’t remember ever seeing one so well put together.  It reminds me of a book you would see in someone’s library with a heavy, embossed cover and thick pages with a natural unfinished edge.  I can attest to the fact that it looks wonderful sitting on my coffee table.  I would definitely recommend against getting this as an e-book.  As wonderful as e-books are, I don’t think that they can truly capture the beauty of this book.  There are a lot of pictures and I just don’t think that an e-book can truly do this book justice.

Surprisingly enough, I have never read a libretto, so I did not know what to expect.  I didn’t know if I was just going to be seeing the musical written out like a play, showing who is singing what part and some minor stage blocking and positions, etc.  I would have been happy with just that.  I would have found it a wonderful companion to the soundtrack.  But this book is so much more.

You’re given an insider’s view of the creation of Hamilton and what led Lin-Manuel to create this tremendous work of art.  You’re also walked through the production and how they created magic not only with the staging of the production, but how each of the original cast was brought in.  For those of us who are new to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s an amazing insight into his creation process and the tremendous amount of respect that the Broadway community and music community as a whole have for him and his creations.  People were literally begging to be part of this endeavor before it was even much more than just an idea and a few songs.

On nearly every page there is an amazing photograph.  Some are photographs from the stage production and some are candid shots of Lin-Manuel or other people instrumental in the phenomenon known as Hamilton.  There is even a surprise for people who haven’t yet seen the show but are addicted to the soundtrack.  There is a scene in the show that wasn’t included in the soundtrack and you’re able to both read the scene and there is a gorgeous photographic background showing what it looks like in the production.

The annotations to every song are more than worth the cost of the book.  Getting the story from Jeremy McCarter was amazing enough, but to see into the inner workings of Lin-Manuel’s mind was just priceless.  To see where the inspiration came from for the different numbers and what went into them is just awe-inspiring.  The attention to detail and historic accuracy are amazing.  When he takes liberties with the timeline or with certain characters, Lin-Manuel is quick to point out what he changed and why.  I got almost giddy with anticipation when I turned the page and went to the next song, waiting to see what notes were in the margin and what new things I was going to learn.

I really can’t say enough about this book.  I know that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is a work that is for everyone.  Even if you hate musicals, don’t follow theatre and don’t have a clue who Alexander Hamilton or Lin-Manuel Miranda are, take a chance on this book.  This is more than just a play.  More than just a musical.  More than just the telling of the life of one of our founding fathers.  Everyone is going to get something different from Hamilton, especially for those who have never cared about history.  This work opens up a whole new perspective into our past.

I hope to someday be one of the lucky ones to be able to see Hamilton.  I want to be in the room where it happens.

 

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Filed under Biography/Memoir, Historical, Non-Fiction

Review: While You Were Mine by Ann Howard Creel

2 1/2 Stars

Gwen Mullen is a nurse in New York and the end of World War II has just been announced.  It’s V-J Day and she should be on top of the world like the rest of the populace.  The war is over and the men are coming back home.  It’s a circus and a joyous occasion, she’s swept up in the crowd.  She’s the iconic figure that graced the cover of Life magazine, she’s the nurse that gets kissed by some random soldier.  But Gwen really isn’t much for celebrating, she’s afraid of losing the little girl who has become her life over the last year.  Those fears are realized as she approaches her home and sees a soldier on her doorstep.

John McKee comes back home to see his wife and the child that he’s never met.  But he’s in for shock because Alice isn’t there waiting for him.  Instead, he meets Gwen.  We learn that Alice had been Gwen’s roommate and shortly after giving birth to Mary, she decided that she just couldn’t handle motherhood and had convinced herself that John was dead, so she left Mary behind without a second thought or a backward glance.  Since then, Gwen has become the only parent that Mary has ever known and now, she’s going to lose this child that she’s come to love as her own.

Gwen decides to help John get to know his daughter and help him learn to be a dad.  They slowly begin to get to know one another as well and begin to grow a bond and feelings for one another.  With the help of her best friend and her neighbor, Gwen and John look to be coming together as a happy family.

It honestly could have just stayed that way.  A really sweet story about a woman who stepped up when no one else could or would and the man who came home from the war to a destroyed life, only to find love again with this strong woman.  But no, it’s apparently not enough and there are obstacles that need to be thrown in the way.  John turns into a jerk and Gwen becomes the ultimate doormat.

The story ultimately has a happy ending, but it’s almost unsatisfying.  I’m really wanted to like this book more, especially since it started out so well.

 

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Review: The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone

4 Stars

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me the opportunity to read this book prior to publication.

I’m a sucker for anything historical, especially in European history.  I also love reading historical accounts of woman in an age where their voices were rarely heard outside the home and where their correspondence and other writings were routinely lost, burned or otherwise destroyed because they were not deemed important enough to keep.  This book takes us from the birth of Cliveden to it’s decline, a romp through three centuries of scandal and intrigue.

The estate was originally built by the Duke of Buckingham for his mistress, Anna-Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury.  The very creation of Cliveden was shrouded in scandal and political intrigue.  It saw the rise and fall of its first mistress as Buckingham was forced to cut Anna-Maria out of his life.  Her reign at Cliveden was brief and she was forced to flee to France after both she and the Duke fell out of favor at court due to their behavior.  Her story was very well written and researched and you could feel a sympathy for her and her station.  Many others have made women like Anna-Maria out to be evil and sex-crazed.  But the author paints a much different picture.  What would you have done in her shoes during a time where women did not enjoy the same freedom we do today.

The house burned down and was rebuilt several times during its history.  It passed through several families, including (for a time) the Prince of Whales.  It was a seat of political importance and intrigue.  The early mistresses were often close to the monarchy and in one case, became very close friends with Queen Victoria.  You couldn’t be that close to the Queen without becoming involved in the politics of the court.  These women definitely had a voice and while we didn’t often hear them out loud, their effects were clearly present.

Cliveden leaves English hands and becomes the home of Nancy Astor and her husband.  She is the very antithesis of the first mistress of Cliveden.  Where Anna-Maria was thought of as a nymphomaniac, Nancy Astor was the very definition of prudish.  Instead, she brought her eccentric and energetic nature to Cliveden and became the first woman MP as she paved the way for women in politics.

This is an awesome book for any lover of history, especially those who are interested in the historic estates and the women who ran them.

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Review: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Wood

4 Stars

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for the chance to read this book prior to publication.  The review below is my opinion and was not impacted in any way by receiving an advance reading copy.

1904 Coney Island.  The newest amusement park, Dreamland, has opened and the summer tourists are beginning to swarm upon this bright new attraction.  But the other side of the island are the forgotten relics of a different era.  Part of that bygone era is Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a museum of curiosities and oddities.  Home to a mad scientist and a place for the Unusuals to hang out and not be stared at or laughed at for their appearance.  Into this scene comes young Kitty Hayward.  A young English woman who has come to America with her family and has seemed to lost them along the way and no one will tell her where they are.  By luck or chance, she is brought to Magruder’s and its inhabitants take her under their wing as they try to help her find out what has happened to her mother.

The story brings together two sides of the coin in Coney Island.  The business owners and politicians who will do anything it takes to keep not only their investments but their own class safe.  On the other side you have the everyday people who make these investments profitable, the Unusuals who put on their shows and ply their trades to bring in the tourists.  In the wake of a plague going through the island like wildfire, the blame is put on the modest flea circus held at Magruder’s and on those who run the circus and other myriad of features around the island.  The tourists flee and those left behind have to struggle to stay alive, keep their way of life intact and solve the mystery of Kitty’s mother.

There are so many characters that sometimes it is hard to keep them all sorted out.  But they are all vividly drawn and they each have their own story that lends to the greater narrative.  The heroes and villains are sometimes one in the same.  There is plenty of action and suspense and there are a few twists and turns along the way that you may not be expecting.  I was left wanting more and I haven’t yet decided if that’s good or bad!

While this is a work of fiction, you can tell that the history of Coney Island was well researched and the descriptions of Magruder’s Curiosity Closet remind you of several oddities and curiosities museums all over the world.  The more unusual characters were treated with respect and weren’t allowed to become caricatures.  I think my favorite would have to be Rosalind and I think he will probably become yours too.

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Review: Lady in the Smoke by Karen Odden

4 Stars

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the chance to read this book prior to publication later this month.  The following review is my own opinion and was in no way swayed by receiving an ARC.

As my reading list probably shows, I like historical books.  So I was really pleased to find a historical fiction novel that dealt with romance between two people but didn’t delve into the typical pattern that many novels follow.  All in all, I think it was a very well written book and the plot was interesting and the characters were fairly interesting as well.

After a humiliating Season in London, Lady Elizabeth Fraser is on her way back to her ancestral home when the train she’s riding in derails and bursts into flames.  She and her mother barely escape with their lives and are lying injured in a field when Paul Wilcox comes upon them.  He is a railway surgeon who quickly stitches up Elizabeth’s wounds and provides care to her mother.  Elizabeth is drawn to this surgeon, so much so, that she finds herself risking her own reputation by working side by side with him while he tends to the patients that have been brought to the hotel she’s recovering in.

Elizabeth overhears Paul speaking with someone about how this derailment was not an accident.  She learns that there have been more of these accidents along the railway that have been the result of sabotage and those who are working to prove what’s happening are ending up dead.  She begins an investigation with Paul and his sources to get to the bottom of this before anyone else ends up dead.  The more she learns, the more she places herself at risk.  She risks her reputation over and over and she also puts her very life at risk.

Paul is then wrongfully accused of manslaughter in the death of one of his patients and as he is awaiting the trial that will determine his life, Elizabeth is uncovering a plot decades in the making that will explain everything.  But will she be in time?  Will Paul lose his freedom?  Will she lose her dowry if they lose the vote in Parliament and the railway closes?  Will Elizabeth and Paul ignore convention and the rules of decorum and act on the love that they now feel for each other?

Elizabeth was no shrinking violet and had a fire to her.  I’m always glad to see a woman take charge of her life, even in the face of unimaginable pain and loss.  She was a very strong female character and I was glad to get to know her.  All of the characters were enjoyable and none of them really fell flat or felt less than genuine.  I would definitely recommend this to any fan of the Victorian era or who just wants a good little mystery to keep them busy for awhile.

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