Monday, November 28, 2016


Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman who Ruled an Empire- Julia Baird
Random House
Release Date: November 22, 2016

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. In a world where women were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.
Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping conventional boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.
Drawing on sources that include fresh revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings vividly to life the fascinating story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning.


The newest biography on Queen Victoria, Julia Baird's Victoria is a well researched and well written exploration of one of the most famous women who has ever lived- and who is probably known more by the mythology surrounding her and her reign than the reality.

Through Baird's research, including newly available papers on John Brown (Victoria's servant and close confidante after Albert's death) and from Dr. Reid (Victoria's physician in her final years), we see Victoria in new ways.  Baird shows us a complicated and complex woman. A woman both incredibly strong and incredibly in need of emotional connections.  A woman who ruled an empire but believed that women could not rule.  Victoria disagreed with the developing women's suffrage movements, but after her death was held up by suffragists as an example of women's strength.

 Perhaps one of the biggest take aways from Victoria is not actually about Victoria but about what we know about history itself.  Throughout Victoria Baird mentions known occasions of editing or destroying information- whether on Victoria, Albert, John Brown, or others- in an attempt to create an image rather than preserve impartial history.  Her daughter Beatrice is known to have not only heavily edited Victoria's personal diaries, but to have burned the originals after doing so in what Baird (rightly, I think) calls "one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century".  Beatrice wrote to her great-nephew King George VI saying that letters between her parents were so intimate (apparently relating to personal arguments), and Victoria's ransom jottings about daily life, could have no value "historical or biographical value whatever".  Beatrice focused on protecting her parents' memory as she wanted them to be seen, and was in the unique position of being able to permanently remove much that conflicted with what she wanted that memory to be.  Baird does an excellent job of reminding those who have never really thought about it that the agendas and prejudices of the historian can greatly alter a biography- whether on purpose on not.  Meanwhile, every history lover reading Victoria will mourn for the letters and diaries that we we never read and what light they might have shed on both people and the world at that time in general.  

Readers who felt Victoria had no "modern" appeal or connection will hopefully be surprised to find how relevant Baird has made Victoria through today's eyes.  Although sometimes slightly repetitive and suffering from the problem I have with many biographies of dramatically forecasting the future (ending of chapters with "if only they knew then what was to happen" approach that seems common, but I find very annoying every time), Victoria is a well researched and captivating book that shines new light on one of the longest reigning and influential English monarchs ever.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.   

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Ravished- Amanda Quick

Ravished- Amanda Quick
Release Date: June 1, 1992 Reissued: December 23, 2009

Rating (Our of 5):

Synopsis:From the cozy confines of a tiny seaside village to the glittering crush of the a fashionable London soiree comes an enthralling tale of a thoroughly mismatched couple . . . poised to discover the rapture of love.

There was no doubt about it. What Miss Harriet Pomeroy needed was a man. Someone powerful and clever who could help her rout the unscrupulous thieves who were using her beloved caves to hide their loot. But when Harriet summoned Gideon Westbrook, Viscount St. Justin, to her aid, she could not know that she was summoning the devil himself. . . . 

Dubbed the Beast of Blackthorne Hall for his scarred face and lecherous past, Gideon was strong and fierce and notoriously menacing. Yet Harriet could not find it in her heart to fear him. For in his tawny gaze she sensed a savage pain she longed to soothe . . . and a searing passion she yearned to answer. Now, caught up in the Beast’s clutches, Harriet must find a way to win his heart–and evade the deadly trap of a scheming villain who would see them parted for all time.


One of Quick's older books, Ravished was reissued a few years ago and is still very much worth the read- despite the rather dramatic synopsis it's been given. It's the story of Harrier Pomeroy, an avid fossil collector who discovers that the caves she's been fossil hunting in are being used to store stolen goods.  Deciding it's the landholder's job to clear up the problem she summons Gideon Westbrook, Viscount St. Justin, to deal with it.  Gideon hasn't been back to his lands in Upper Biddleton in six years- not since his fiancΓ© killed herself and he was blamed for it.  Harriet, new to the area, hasn't heard the story and after meeting Gideon, doesn't believe it.  Gideon is as surprised in her trust as he is that she isn't trying to trick him for money or his title.  But discovering that Harriet is exactly who she says she is doesn't help when the two of them are trapped in a compromising position and marriage is the only way out. Now the question is- can they get to the alter before the thieves (and Gideon's own enemies) kill them?

Ravished contains the classic wry humor of all Amanda Quick's books. Gideon especially, a man who no-one would expect to have a sense of humor, often gets some of the best lines- like the first time he sees Harriet's workroom with fossilized bones everywhere and thinks of it as "the cheerful little ante-room of hell".  He is a man who is beyond jaded.  Everyone, including his own parents, believe he raped and then abandoned his fiancΓ© six years ago and since no one was interested in listening to his side of things, he stopped explaining.  Over time he stopped explaining anything and helped others to believe the absolute worst of him.  He cut himself off from family, Society, and as much of life as he could get away with and still manage his estates.  Harriet comes as a complete surprise to him: she isn't overawed by his rank, appalled by his facial scars, or afraid of his reputation.  She sees a man with a sense of honor, who can be trusted to do the right thing by people and his lands, and Gideon finds himself trying not to disappoint her.

Harriet is a wonderful, strong, and intelligent woman who is sure of herself and not afraid to assert her independence.  While at first she and Gideon seem like polar opposites, the more we get to know them the easier it is to see that they are perfect for each other.  They almost instantly respect each other and (usually) treat each other as equals.  The only real times that changes are when they are trying to protect each other- whether from thieves and smugglers or Society's harsh criticism. 

At its center, Ravished is a story about how sometimes finding out that another person believes the best in us allows us to see it in ourselves.  But it's also a story of how everyone, no matter how independent, needs other people.  And that other people- friends, and family, not just lovers, can make us stronger, and happier, than by standing alone.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Butter: A Rich History- Elaine Khosrova
Algonquin Books
Release Date: November 15, 2016

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: From its humble agrarian origins to its present-day artisanal glory, butter has a fascinating story to tell, and Khosrova is the perfect person to tell it. With tales about the ancient butter bogs of Ireland, the pleasure dairies of France, and the sacred butter sculptures of Tibet, Khosrova details butter’s role in history, politics, economics, nutrition, and even spirituality and art. Readers will also find the essential collection of core butter recipes, including beurre maniΓ©, croissants, pΓ’te brisΓ©e, and the only buttercream frosting anyone will ever need, as well as practical how-tos for making various types of butter at home--or shopping for the best.


One of my favorite kinds of non-fiction book to read is the book that explores the history of a particular thing: from clothes to chairs, customs to countries.  Food history has begun to get its due with books like Mark Kurlansky's Salt, and now Elaine Khosrova's Butter: A Rich History.  A what a history it has!  This seemingly simple and ubiquitous kitchen staple has a complex and fascinating story to tell, and Khosrova tells it in a well-researched and engaging style.

Butter explores early domesticated animals across the world from cows to yaks and how different cultures across the globe see milk and butter. If you've ever wondered how an animal can eat green grass and its' white milk produce yellow butter this is the place to go for an answer.  Butter sculpting didn't start with county fairs in Iowa and Ohio, but with ancient Tibetan Buddhism.  How many other foods can claim the mystical, artistic, symbolic, and economic importance that butter can? 

I was especially interested in reading about the cultural history of butter in terms of its economics and gender roles.  Apparently for centuries butter was a divisive topic across much of Europe: Greeks and Italians used olive oil where others used butter and when they wanted to insult someone they called them a "butter-eater" (a barbarian). Khosrova explores the importance of butter and other dairy products for women (the iconic dairymaids) as a way to have a measure of respect and financial independence.  

A fun addition to the book is an appendix listing the word "butter" in languages across the globe.  And, as an added bonus, Butter includes a section with some "greatest hits" recipes centering around butter.  I'm a terrible cook, but even I am inspired to try out some of these tasty sounding treats: Buttermilk Scones, Butterscotch Pudding, Easy Buttercream Frosting, Best-Ever Crumb Cake- the recipes alone should make you want to pick up this book!  Everyone will enjoy the rich history and lore, physics and chemistry, past and present that is the fascinating story of Butter.  

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Monday, November 7, 2016


Victoria- Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin's Press
Release Date: November 22, 2016

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: Drawing on Queen Victoria’s diaries, which she first started reading when she was a student at Cambridge University, Daisy Goodwin―creator and writer of the new PBS/Masterpiece drama Victoria and author of the bestselling novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter―brings the young nineteenth-century monarch, who would go on to reign for 63 years, richly to life in this magnificent novel.

Early one morning, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria is roused from bed with the news that her uncle William IV has died and she is now Queen of England. The men who run the country have doubts about whether this sheltered young woman, who stands less than five feet tall, can rule the greatest nation in the world. 
Despite her age, however, the young queen is no puppet. She has very definite ideas about the kind of queen she wants to be, and the first thing is to choose her name.
“I do not like the name Alexandrina,” she proclaims. “From now on I wish to be known only by my second name, Victoria.”
Next, people say she must choose a husband. Everyone keeps telling her she’s destined to marry her first cousin, Prince Albert, but Victoria found him dull and priggish when they met three years ago. She is quite happy being queen with the help of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who may be old enough to be her father but is the first person to take her seriously.

Victoria is a novel that draws you in from the very beginning and, on reaching the end, leaves you wanting more.  Most of the major characters, especially Victoria and Melbourne, are written as complicated and multi-faceted people, Victoria in particular. She lived all her young life with her smothering mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her mother's controlling "personal secretary" Sir John Conroy.  Kept from interacting with people her own age, and indeed people in general, kept from learning the details of government and protocol that she should have learned in detail, Victoria becomes both an adult and a monarch at the same time.  Probably because of this, she often seems to act out against those trying to guide her as queen, with sometimes very unhappy consequences.  It makes her often seem a spoiled and slightly unlikeable girl, but also highlights her very human struggles.

Challenged at every turn by the men who should be supporting her, she is suspicious of every attempt at guidance except that of Lord Melbourne.  Melbourne, the former husband to the infamous Caro Lamb, seems many similarities between his late wife and his new queen.  How much of Victoria's appeal to Melbourne is him trying to recapture his youth and bright view of the world?  I get the impression that, for this novel at least, even Melbourne didn't quite know the answer.  

The emotional bonds between Victoria and Melbourne show very much a young girl's first infatuation.  But Melbourne is also the only person Victoria believes sees her as an equal and not as a pawn to be controlled.  When Prince Albert comes onto the scene I was disappointed to not be able to see something similar.  Albert seems to disapprove of much of what Victoria enjoys most- from music and dancing to her dog Dash.  They are thrown together with the expectation of marrying by their family, but why does Victoria choose Albert in the end?  There seems to be some chemistry between them, but the respect and friendship she has with Melbourne never appear with Albert.  I don't know how much of this was based on fact and how much was dramatic license.  Did Victoria marry Albert because it was expected, because she couldn't have Melbourne, and grow to love him? Was it Goodwin's choice in order to keep the relationship between Victoria and Melbourne the center of the reader's focus, since it is certainly the center of the book?  I had hoped for a brief Author's note or Historical Note at the end that might have answered this question, or said anything about where Goodwin stayed strictly to the facts vs when she fictionalized aspects, but the advanced copy I read did not have one. I don't know if the final printing will, but if so it would be very interesting.  The book definitely made me want to read more on Victoria and some of the other players in her early reign.

Daisy Goodwin's Victoria is an enthralling, well-researched and well-written novel based on Queen Victoria's own diaries and brings new and dramatic life to a fascinating historical period.  It is a coming of age story as Victoria grows from the sheltered girl of Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace's Queen of England.  Readers- whether already familiar with Victoria or not- will enjoy this fast-paced look at the life and times of one of the most famous women in history.  

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Baron (The Knickerbocker Club) by [Shupe, Joanna]

Baron (The Knickerbocker Club #2)- Joanna Shupe
Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing 
Release Date: October 25, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):

Synopsis: Born into one of New York's most respected families, William Sloane is a railroad baron who has all the right friends in all the right places. But no matter how much success he achieves, he always wants more. Having secured his place atop the city's highest echelons of society, he's now setting his sights on a political run. Nothing can distract him from his next pursuit--except, perhaps, the enchanting con artist he never saw coming . . .
Ava Jones has eked out a living the only way she knows how. As "Madam Zolikoff," she hoodwinks gullible audiences into believing she can communicate with the spirit world. But her carefully crafted persona is nearly destroyed when Will Sloane walks into her life--and lays bare her latest scheme. The charlatan is certain she can seduce the handsome millionaire into keeping her secret and using her skills for his campaign--unless he's the one who's already put a spell on her . . .


Baron continues Joanna Shupe's Knickerbocker Club series and draws readers into 1888 New York City: its Gilded Age splendor and rich railroad barons, its slum tenements and hardworking residents just trying to get by, its politics and its plots.  The series follows the rich and powerful men of the Knickerbocker Club, you don't need to have read Magnate, the first in the series, to enjoy Baron, although several of the same characters appear in both books. Baron follows William Sloane (Elizabeth's older brother from Magnate) as he runs for Lieutenant Governor of New York.  Already the head of one of the biggest railroad companies in the country and one of the richest men in New York, Will continues to push himself harder and higher.  

Will first meets Ava as "Madam Zolikoff", a medium performing in small theaters and doing private seances.  He wants her to back away from one of her clients, who happens to be his running mate on the election ticket.  But Ava is the only person he's ever met willing to stand up to him, and to tell him "no" at every turn.  Naturally, Will can't resist a challenge and Ava challenges him  constantly.  Ava has worked hard all of her life to create better opportunities for her younger brothers and sister, wanting to make sure they don't have to work dangerous factory jobs or steal just to put food on the table.  She's close to having enough money saved up for them to leave New York for a country life when Will charges in and complicates her already complicated life.

I was skeptical of both Will and Ava before I started reading.  The only redeeming quality I saw in Will from Magnate was that he loved his sister. How was he going to make a likable male lead? What reasons could Ava have for her cons that would make what she was doing 'ok'? I ended up really liking Ava from the very beginning.  She was strong and never backed down from all the challenges life threw at her.  Everything she did was to try and give her younger siblings a better life.  She recognized that her work was morally questionable, but kept to her own code- providing entertainment in the theater, recognizing that usually private seance participants wanted more to be listened to than find where grandma hid the silver, and when she had to give advice she made sure it was as common sense and as close to her client's leanings as possible. Will was a bit tougher for me.  He was so used to getting his own way through money, forceful personality, and blackmail that he railroaded anyone who got in his way.  Qualities that will make you rich and powerful, but not good romantic material.  Through a good portion of the book I kept debating whether I thought Will actually loved Ava and just hadn't figured it out yet, or she was just another case of him selfishly getting his own way. It was definitely a mix for awhile.  By the end I was convinced that he had changed enough that he was capable of loving her, putting aside some of the driving forces that just made him want 'more' and instead wanting to be happy.  His grand gesture for Ava at the end was a great, very Will-like way, of proving it.

 Baron is an excellent addition to this lovely new series. Well-written, well-researched, fast-paced, and detailed, the characters were fully three-dimensional, the challenges were real and nothing was easily overcome.  Even those who know nothing of New York politics during this time will come away with a pretty good idea of what Will was up against.  I very much look forward to Mogul, coming out in the spring!

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.