Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Turncoat (Book Review)

Title: The Turncoat; Book One, Renegades of the Revolution
Author: Donna Thorland
Publication Information: NAL Trade Paperback, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction, first in a series

Plot: 1977. Modest Kate Grey, a New Jersey Quaker who lives with her father and favors the Patriot cause, is confronted with the realities of war when her father joins General Washington and, hours later, Peter Tremayne, a British officer, and Redcoat soldiers invade her home. Kate is so mesmerized by the handsome stranger she is ready to throw virtue to the winds and while she bandies words with Peter, a mysterious widow, who turns out to be an accomplished spy, steals his papers (he is later court-martialed as a result). Peter and his men then flee from Rebel troops; the widow flees from his retribution to Washington, dragging Kate with her. When Kate, knowledgeable about military strategy from long talks with her father, realizes that Washington needs information about the British from General Howe, she offers to infiltrate Philadelphia Tory society and send secret reports back to help win the war. She does not expect to encounter Major Tremayne again, now that they are emphatically on opposing sides, but you won't be surprised to hear that he has survived his disgrace...
(I am afraid the Quakers are shaking their heads over the Grey family: the father is fighting with the Colonists and Kate gains a scandalous, if mostly undeserved reputation.)

What I liked: Thorland’s research is extensive, her depiction of the historical figures we all know – George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Andre, Peggy Shippen, Major Howe and Mrs. Loring – is vivid, and Kate is a witty and brave heroine. Her transformation from plain and rustic country maiden to sophisticated city beauty and spy may be improbable but it is very entertaining. The Revolutionary War is a much overlooked period for historical fiction, although some of my favorites share that setting: Dawn’s Early Light, Celia Garth, and Judas Flowering. This book is much more violent but Thorland also transports the reader into another world.

What I disliked: At times I felt the author was so eager to tell the story that she ignored important questions. For example, I thought Kate was in too much of a hurry to surrender her virtue to a total stranger, and then a bit too willing to abandon her home without wondering if it would still be there when she returned. What even made her think she was capable of becoming a convincing spy? I also wondered how the Widow had money to fund Kate’s finery when Washington’s men were shoeless.

I usually dislike books involving rape, and there are many (some completely unnecessary) in this book. It surprised me that Tremayne, who is meant to contrast with his dissolute relative Caide and who knows how rape can destroy a woman’s life, would even “consider[] a more forceful approach” when he first meets Kate. It is his younger lieutenant who is shocked by his superiors’ attitude toward women, although later Tremayne develops scruples. It also creeped me out that Kate was attracted and responsive to Caide as well as to Tremayne, although I think the author is trying to emphasize her passionate nature and the fact that the two men are opposite sides of the same coin.

Conclusion: Overall, I found this book to be an interesting read and full of memorable characters, even if the author’s interpretation of them was different from my own imagination. I recommend it to fans of historical fiction and intelligent, fearless heroines. Thank you to my friend Ellen for sending it to me!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Heritage (Book Review)

Title: The Heritage
Author: Frances Parkinson Keyes (pronounced to rhyme with size)
Publication Information: Hardcover, McGraw-Hill, 1968
Genre: Historical Fiction

Plot: 1882. Peter Bradford, an indulged member of a prominent Irish-American Boston family, is traveling to Ireland to visit his great-uncle, James O’Toole, the Earl of Cloneen, whose heir he is. On the train en route, he meets a beautiful young woman, falls instantly in love, and they spend the night together. Desperate attempts to find her the next morning are unsuccessful. When Peter reaches Ireland, he has two shocks: his uncle has just died, and his uncle’s much-younger widow is Anne, the woman with whom he just spent the night. Deeply ashamed of her infidelity, Anne will barely speak to Peter, but there is an added complication: if she is pregnant with a son, their child will displace his own father as the new earl!

What I liked: I remembered this book while watching Downton Abbey because of the issue about the heir, and wanted to reread it right away. Keyes’ books always involve honor, and how people feel and react to it in different ways. Here, Anne cannot forgive herself for having betrayed her elderly husband for a night of passion with a handsome young man, while Peter persuades himself that his uncle would have understood and approved of Peter’s passion for Anne because he wants a permanent relationship, not a one night fling. Peter never even considers betraying Anne’s secret even if he is dispossessed by his own child but it’s an enormous thing to keep from family, friends and the local priest . . .

An Irish country estate is an unusual locale for Keyes, most of whose books are set in New England or New Orleans. In one of the long forwards she is known for, she describes how she got the idea for this book. What she does not mention is that although she grew up as Protestant in New England she converted to Catholicism in 1939 (I bet it is no coincidence that she waited until her husband died – it is not the kind of thing Protestants of her background did). Born in 1885, Keyes was just a few years older than Maud Hart Lovelace but their worlds were very different. Keyes’ husband served as Governor of New Hampshire and later spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate. As a Washington hostess, she knew Eleanor Roosevelt and all the political luminaries of that era.

What I disliked: Peter is a well-intentioned but condescending and sanctimonious character, and his attitude toward Anne from the first is annoying: “he could not let the night go by without making an attempt, however, rash to possess this unknown girl” . . . he wanted “to prove he could more than meet her challenge, that he could be her master, as well as her mate.” Later, although he keeps saying he is in love with her, she is unpleasant and distant, and it is hard to believe he really knows her at all or that they have anything in common. And while I have enjoyed Keyes for years, her style is very mannered and unconvincing – no one talks in paragraphs that go on for pages. I think her appeal is the vivid descriptions and memorable characters.

Source: My mother used to own the Fawcett paperback edition but I wound up getting this from the library. Some libraries have given away all of Keyes’ books which is a shame.   For readers who visit New Orleans, I highly recommend a visit to the Beauregard-Keyes House where FPK lived.

Friday, February 1, 2013

With the Secretary of State

At Harvard Commencement several years ago - he was there for his daughter's graduation from Harvard Medical School and I was at my reunion.  I reminded him I had been a supporter since I was 11, and he was appreciative although I am afraid it made him feel a bit aged.