Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England by Kate Hubbard

Title: Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England
Author: Kate Hubbard
Publication: Harper Collins, hardcover, 2019
Genre: Biography, English History

The review below is a cameo appearance (her second) by my mother, Stephanie Martin, as I knew she would enjoy the book.
When books are written about 16th-century women, the subject is usually royalty. Besides their glamor, they are the ones for whom we have the most information. Elizabeth Hardwick is a remarkable exception. Not only did she have a long, eventful and well-documented life, she also was responsible for several splendid buildings.

Bess was born about 1521, lived to be 87, and outlived four husbands, the last marriage making her the Countess of Shrewsbury. She inherited property, married money, but increased and managed her holdings with great skill and became a very wealthy woman in her own right. She was friendly with all the major players of her time, including Queen Elizabeth I, who chose the Shrewsburys to be the jailors of Mary Queen of Scots when she sought refuge in England.

Hardwick Hall (Derbyshire)
Devices and Desires is not the first biography of Bess, but it has particular appeal because it highlights Bess’s achievements as a builder. An amazing number of records have survived from Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall, and other great houses for which she was responsible -- letters and contracts (called “bargains”) and account books. We learn from them how deeply involved Bess was with every decision and how closely she monitored each step. She bought land for its income, but also for its resources, so that if she needed, say, marble or timber, she already owned a source. She also micromanaged her large family, marrying two of her children to two of her stepchildren. Then there was her granddaughter Arbella Stuart, the focus of various political plots, whom Bess kept very close at home into her twenties.
The Green Velvet Bedroom at Hardwick Hall
Not all of Bess’s mansions have survived, but her masterpiece, Hardwick Hall, is still there, with its unusual floor plan, four great turrets and elegant mantels. By the time you finish this book, you will want to head for England on the next flight to visit it.
Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury (1521-1608)
Source: A copy of this book was provided by Harper Collins for review purposes.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier - and Giveaway

Title: Hungry Hill
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publication: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943, hardcover
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Ireland, 1820-1920
Plot: This is a multi-generational saga following the fortunes of an Irish mine-owning family, who are cursed by the peasants who once owned their land.  The book consists of five sections, each focused on a different generation as the feud continues.   In 1820, “Copper John” Brodrick, a prosperous man of enterprise and father of five hopeful children, makes an alliance with one of the local gentry, Robert Lumley,  to work the copper mines on their joint property, Hungry Hill.  He is excited about this long-planned venture but it causes ill will in the community: the Donovan family is bitter about having many years ago lost the land now owned by the Brodricks and curses the family, promising that the hill will go on standing after the mine is in ruins and the Brodrick house destroyed.  Brodrick ignores the diatribe and pursues his dream of a prosperous mine but his descendants do not possess his work ethic.   Like many Irish landowners of the time, they are insensitive to the needs of the less affluent and ignore the endless ill-will of the Donovan family to their downfall.  Brodrick’s son John marries Lumley’s granddaughter (the most vivid character in the book, Fanny-Rosa) and the line continues, with various complications, through 1920.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially dynastic sagas full of Shakespearean foreboding

My Impressions: du Maurier’s writing is always evocative and convincing, and I can easily envision Clonmere Castle, the Brodricks’ beautiful (at least in 1820) but isolated estate.  Her descriptions of nature are also vivid, although the setting is Ireland, not her beloved Cornwall.  However,  I can see why Hungry Hill is not one of her most popular or best known books because, although it is a compelling read, it is somewhat depressing due to its Greek tragedy-like inevitability of doom.   It is full of characters who are self-destruction and ignored this reader’s pleas to exhibit common sense and shape up (don’t you hate it when you beg a character not to make fatal mistakes and he or she plunges onward anyway?).  John Brodrick is driven by his ambitions and makes no effort to see any other point of view, setting the stage for a hundred years of disaster:
He dismissed Simon Flower from his head with little trouble, having a great contempt for people he did not understand. . . 
The story starts at a moment of optimism as Copper John, a widower, is excited about his new mine and proud of his family but nearly everything is downhill after that, and it is like Game of Thrones in that the author kills off her characters almost as soon as one gets engaged in their narrative.   Copper John’s sons have been expensively educated in England but his three daughters have only each other and the local doctor for company, although there is a garrison of officers on nearby Doon Island who provide some entertainment.  The daughters, although interesting, are secondary to the curse that primarily follows the sons of the house (although the women don't have much fun either).   John-Henry, who inherits what is left of the property in 1920, when Ireland continues to be at war with itself, is unimpressed:
“As far as I can discover,” he said, “no Brodrick has ever done anything but die young or drink himself to death.”
I wonder what a modern day publisher, editor, and staff would think of du Maurier?  Would they beg her to go on tour to meet her fans?  Would they criticize her downbeat endings?  Would they appreciate her brilliance or be annoyed that she wrote at her own speed and never wrote the same book twice?  "Why doesn't this heroine have a name?" I can hear my old publisher complaining.   Our editorial meetings were full of sometimes-misguided attempts to make our forthcoming books more marketable.  For example, sometimes we made the authors take a pseudonym if their recent sales had been weak or we'd change the title of a book (which sometimes upset the author).   Still, as someone who loves several other du Maurier books, I still enjoyed adding to my knowledge of her work.
Hungry Hill, the Movie:  Once the movie of Rebecca was so successful, I suppose it was inevitable that all of du Maurier’s work would be considered for the silver screen but I hadn't known about this one.  The Hungry Hill movie was made in 1947 with du Maurier sharing the screenwriting with Terence Young (who later directed several James Bond movies), and starred Margaret Lockwood as Fanny-Rosa and Jean Simmons as her sister-in-law Jane Brodrick, my favorite character.  I'd like to see it! My erstwhile acquaintance Leonard Maltin gives it two stars: “Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s book focusing on 19th century family with their vices and virtues highlighted; capable cast. . .”  Here is a clip.
Netflix is doing a remake of Rebecca (pet peeve – why do remakes when there are so many great books that could be amazing movies or mini-series?) and I read this week that Kristen Scott Thomas is going to play Mrs. Danvers.   I suppose she is too old to play Rebecca but I can see her as that charismatic but polarizing figure over the elderly Mrs. Danvers.

Source: Personal copy.  My hardcover is a first American edition with the original dust jacket shown above.

Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: There is a literary festival going on this week in Fowey, Cornwall, where du Maurier lived, which includes bestselling authors Diane Setterfield and Ruth Ware, lectures, and (how fun) a walking tour of du Maurier’s favorite places.  For those of us who are fans but can’t make it to Cornwall, Blogger HeavenAli is featuring du Maurier reviews on her blog all week.   I chose Hungry Hill because I thought it would be more fun to feature one of du Maurier's lesser-known titles.   If you have never read any of her books, I suggest starting with Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, or The House in the Strand. If Ali does another du Maurier week next year, I think I will try Mary Anne or The Glass-Blowers which I may have read long ago but do not recall.

Giveaway: I also have a Hungry Hill paperback I would be happy to send to someone eager to complete a collection.  Please leave a comment speculating on the heroine's name in Rebecca.   If more than one person asks, I will pick a name.
LitCrit:  I had just finished this post when Simon from Stuck in a Book posted a link to a fascinating article by editor Sheila Hodges, who writes that the first book she edited of du Maurier's was Hungry Hill, du Maurier's seventh novel and ninth book.   During my years in publishing I witnessed many authors who badly needed editing but wouldn't accept it or editors who were afraid the author would jump publisher if criticized.  Hodges says du Maurier was very cooperative during the editorial process (although stood her ground when she felt strongly).   I wonder if Hodges could have done something about the unrelieved gloom and meandering of Hungry Hill if it hadn't been the first book they worked on together. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Daughter's Tale by Armando Lucas Correa - and Giveaway

Title: The Daughter’s Tale
Author: Armando Lucas Correa
Publication: Atria, hardcover, May 2019 (translated from Spanish)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Berlin, 1939. Amanda Sternberg and her husband, Julius, dreamed of blissful summers spent by the lake at Wannsee and unlimited opportunities for their children. But that all falls apart when the family bookshop is destroyed and Julius is sent to a concentration camp. Now, desperate to flee Nazi Germany and preserve what’s left of her family, Amanda heads toward the south of France with her two young daughters—only to arrive with one. In Haute-Vienne, their freedom is short-lived, and soon she and her eldest daughter are forced into a labor camp, where Amanda must once again make an impossible sacrifice.

New York City, 2015. Eighty-year-old Elise Duval receives a call from a woman bearing messages from a time and country that she forced herself to forget. A French Catholic who arrived in New York after World War II, Elise is shocked to discover that the letters were from her mother, written in German during the war. Despite Elise’s best efforts to stave off her past, seven decades of secrets begin to unravel.

Based on true events, The Daughter’s Tale includes one of the most harrowing atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. Bleak and immersive, it is a family saga of love and survival.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction about devoted mothers, sisters, and/or World War II

Giveaway: I have one copy to give away – please share your favorite WWII novel in the comments and I will pick a name on May 23 (US and Canada only, please)

Purchase Links: IndieBound * Barnes & Noble * Amazon * Books-A-Million * Atria

My Impressions: Historical fiction set during WWII is one of my favorite genres, and this one, told in dual timeframes, starts in 21st century New York before moving to a familiar situation in 1930s Berlin - where a family starts to witness the atrocity of Hitler’s Germany but is unwilling to believe their own lives will be affected. By the time Amanda and her doctor husband, Julius, recognize what is happening to Jews like them it is too late to escape together. However, Amanda is determined to save her little girls, no matter the cost to herself or anyone else. The story focuses on her desperate struggles in Germany and in France, and the heartbreaking choices a mother can be forced to make in order to keep her children alive. Fans of All the Light We Cannot See and The Women in the Castle will probably enjoy this novel.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While I enjoyed this book, I couldn’t help thinking of the stories we hear nightly about desperate families being torn apart by the current administration and perhaps that is why I was not as moved by imaginary Amanda’s struggles. I did like the character of Father Marcel, a priest whose compassion is instrumental in the Sternbergs’ survival, but I felt that the little French village (albeit based on a real one) was such a fictional cliché with the inquisitive neighbors, the woman carrying on with German soldiers, the brave priest and a few men trying to contribute to the Resistance, the bullying school children, the hidden radio, the soldiers seeking reprisals. You really need something new if you are going to set a novel in this period, and I didn’t find it here (a variation of the reprisal incident, although based here on a real life atrocity, is another fixture of books set in WWII France). A story told from the perspective of the resentful daughter of the household that takes in the refuges might be interesting – at one point, I thought that was where the story was going and I sympathized with Danielle, but author Correa went in a different direction.

Quibble: Would hot baths have been readily accessible in this remote French town? I know people in England who didn’t have toilets in their home until the 50s. Would a refugee like Amanda make herself quite so much at home with a bath every day? Not that I begrudge the poor woman a hot bath so long as she heats the water herself and carries it to the appropriate place . . .

My favorite WWII books include While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, This Was Tomorrow by Elswyth Thane (don’t read this series out of order), and Citizens of London by Lynne Olson (nonfiction). Follow me on Goodreads to see my whole WWII list.
Arya Stark
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

May 12th: Books and Bindings
May 16th: Tina Says
Off the Blog: I have now caught up with Game of Thrones and am completely enthralled by the final season. The penultimate episode aired last night. Which Game of Thrones character are you?  I am Arya Stark:
You are not to be messed with, that's for sure. You are a disciplined and skilled fighter, and your enemies would be wise not to cross you.
I do share Arya's predilection for lists and revenge!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker

Title: Pretty Face (London Celebrities series) 
Author: Lucy Parker
Publication: Carina Press, 2017, paperback
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Plot: Lily Lamprey is a pretty blonde starring in a very popular English television show when director Luc Savage starts casting his new 16th century historical drama.  He makes fun of her as a “breathy Marilyn Monroe impersonator” but is persuaded to audition her for the part of Elizabeth I in a period drama.  They clash immediately but she gets the job.  Once hired, Lily needs to work hard to acquire the skills Luc requires and show the cast and critics that she was hired because she is more than a pretty face, not due to connections or because she’s having an affair with her sexy director.  Even if the temptation is irresistible!
You could get away with dating a co-star - if they were single and born in the same decade.  That was good promo for the show.  The bosses loved it.  Until the inevitable breakup, when fans went into meltdown on social media and the backlash hit.  Lily had seen it happen enough at CTV that she'd never wanted to go anywhere near another actor romantically. 
Nobody was high-fived for having a fling with management . . . it was all her lifelong deal-breakers in one man.
Audience: Fans of character-driven contemporary romance

My Impressions: This is the second book in an entertaining and fast-paced new series set in the celebrity world and on the London stage, always a fascinating venue.    Lily is not interested in a relationship while she tries to establish a serious career; she has a complicated family history: her father is a business magnate who had an out of wedlock relationship with her mother, and his mortified wife has always despised her.   Luc is just coming out of a long relationship with an actress who precipitously married someone else and just wants to focus on his new production.

Naturally, they can’t think about anyone but each other and the tension practically sizzles on the page – I love how the author manages to make their story sexy and funny at the same time.   Lily’s internal monologues are especially amusing because they ring true.  The minor characters are also well depicted.  I like Lily's roommate Trix and Luc's ex Margo is more complicated than predictable other woman cliches.   If there is a flaw, it is that humans probably can't sustain this degree of intensity nonstop (and I think Parker could have reduced the cursing).  And it is hard to believe that two mature adults - who acknowledge a romantic relationship would be unprofessional and potentially disastrous to at least one of their careers and who are committed to those careers -can’t withstand temptation for a few weeks, but the result is good storytelling.
New Zealand author Lucy Parker
Source: Library – but I ordered the next two books in the series to keep.  I suggest you begin with the first in the series, Act Like It, because characters from that book appear in this one.  Thanks to Stephanie Burgis for the recommendation.

Off the Blog: Thinking of F. Washington Jarvis, a dear family friend whose memorial service I just attended.