Monday, October 29, 2018

The Witch of Willow Hall (Book Review)

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Publication: Graydon House, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Massachusetts, 1821
Plot: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. Mr. Montrose is a prominent businessman and is busy with new ventures while the women in the family have little to do but squabble.  The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia and her younger sister, Emeline.
All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, and Lydia will be forced to draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end, for good or for evil . . .  Audience: Fans of dark and haunting books such as The Widow’s House and Imaginary Girls
The Barrett House parlor
My Impressions: The premise of this book was interesting and it was certainly an atmospheric Halloween-season read as I flew from Boston to St. Louis yesterday but I couldn’t help thinking my mother’s verdict would have been: “Overwrought!” and I have to agree.  How many scandals can one family experience in a few months?  Rumors of incest, a broken engagement, mysterious sobs on the night, ghostly figures, a young lady carrying on improperly in public, another calling on a young man without a chaperon, a tragic death, an attempted suicide, a much-telegraphed pregnancy, a dramatic illness and recovery, blackmail – and that doesn’t even include finding out your ancestor is a witch or the many scandals in another character’s past (birds of a feather flock together).  I became weary of all the drama and it was not very convincing.   For example, if you know your sister is a liar and wants to hurt you, why would you believe anything she says that contradicts more reliable sources?  If you are being blackmailed, maybe it is time to stop hiding things from your father, who might be able to help (mine would have!), rather than trust someone already proven to be completely unreliable.  Perhaps better not have tossed so many elements together like a salad but woven them together more subtly or simply crafted the plot less extravagantly in the first place.
Barrett House, the inspiration for Willow Hall
The strength of the book was the depiction of the sisters’ menacing new home, Willow Hall.  It is not surprising to read that author Hester Fox based this on real-life Barrett House in New Ipswich, New Hampshire at which she interned long ago.  I liked that it had made such a lasting impression on her.   Fox writes with precision and careful research most of the time but a good editor would have replaced the jarring “like” with “as” and made a few other judicious replacements to maintain the 19th century feel.  
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. 

Review Tour:

September 24th: Moonlight Rendezvous
September 25th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
October 2nd: Jessicamap Reviews
October 3rd: A Dream Within a Dream
October 8th: Cheryl’s Book Nook – review and excerpt
October 11th: Broken Teepee
October 15th: Laura’s Reviews
October 16th: Booktimistic and @booktimistic
October 17th: @hotcocoareads
October 18th: @bookishmadeleine
October 19th: Books and Bindings
October 19th: @bookishconnoisseur
October 22nd: Really Into This
October 23rd: Fuelled by Fiction
October 24th: Katy’s Library and @katyslibrary
October 25th: Bookmark Lit
October 26th: Girls in Books and @girlsinbooks
November 3rd: The Lit Bitch

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter (Book Review)

Title: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter 
Author: Hazel Gaynor
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: From The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home comes a historical novel inspired by true events, and the little-known female lighthouse keepers of the past two hundred years.

“They call me a heroine, but I am not deserving of such accolades. I am just an ordinary young woman who did her duty.”

1838: Northumberland, England. Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands has been Grace Darling’s home for all of her twenty-two years. When she and her father rescue shipwreck survivors in a furious storm, Grace becomes celebrated throughout England, the subject of poems, ballads, and plays. But far more precious than her unsought fame is the friendship that develops between Grace and a visiting artist. Just as George Emmerson captures Grace with his brushes, she in turn captures his heart.
Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport, RI

1938: Newport, Rhode Island. Nineteen-years-old and pregnant, Matilda Emmerson has been sent away from Ireland in disgrace. She is to stay with Harriet, a reclusive relative and assistant lighthouse keeper at Rose Island, until her baby is born. A discarded, half-finished portrait opens a window into Matilda’s family history. As a deadly hurricane approaches, two women, living a century apart, will be linked forever by their instinctive acts of courage and love.

Audience: Fans of authors such as Kristin Hannah, Nicola Cornick, Jennifer Robson, Susan Meissner

Author Links: Website Facebook | Instagram Twitter

My Impressions: Hazel Gaynor is an author who has been on my radar for some time so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read her new book.   I am sure I am not the only person who is fascinated by lighthouses and who has longed to spend the night in one.  I did not romanticize or overlook the loneliness or the danger involved in such a vocation and this book does neither, while making it clear the elements are the enemy:
. . . I begin my battle with the sea, pulling first on the left oar and then on the right, sculling forward and then backward in a desperate effort to stop the boat being smashed against the rocks while Father assesses the situation with the survivors.  The minutes expand like hours, every moment bringing a bigger wave to dowse me with frigid water and render me almost blind with the sting of salt in my eyes.  Mam’s words tumble through my mind.  A storm should be respected, but never feared.  Show it you’re afraid, and you’re already halfway to dead.  I rage back at the wind, telling it I am not afraid, ignoring the deep burn of the muscles in my forearms.  I have never felt more alone or afraid but I am determined to persevere.
The courage of 19th century Grace puts 21st century not-physically-very-brave me to shame – we all hope we would have the courage to be selfless and save others in an emergency but it's harder to live up to such challenges!  Grace does not hesitate, despite extreme personal danger, and her efforts are recognized far and wide.   She is tested in a different way afterwards, when her privacy is gone and she is acclaimed, resulting in publicity that threatens her way of life.

A descendant of one of the people Grace rescues is the other protagonist of the story, a 20th century heroine with her own lighthouse story, which reveals the effect of the past on her life.   That portion of the book is also vividly depicted but I will admit that I was fascinated by Grace Darling’s story!  I loved the beautiful and evocative cover, and look forward to more books by this talented author.
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:

Tour Schedule

October 9th: BookNAround
October 10th: bookchickdi
October 11th: A Chick Who Reads
October 12th: 5 Minutes For Books
October 18th: Man of La Book
October 22nd: Jenn’s Bookshelves
October 23rd: Books and Bindings
October 24th: Broken Teepee
October 29th: Reading Reality
October 31st: Instagram: @writersdream
November 1st: Kahakai Kitchen
November 2nd: Into the Hall of Books
Guy Fawkes Day: Doing Dewey
Lighthouse image copyright to New England Today - please see https://newengland.com/today/travel/rhode-island/newport/rose-island-lighthouse-newport-ri-photos

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Island of Adventure (Book Review) #1944Club

This is my final entry for the #1944Club:

Title: The Island of Adventure (published in the US as Mystery Island)
Author: Enid Blyton
Illustrator: Stuart Tresilian
Publication: Macmillan, 1944
Genre: Juvenile mystery series
Plot: In this series launch, Blyton sets the scene with the two pairs of siblings who will feature in all eight Adventure books.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Young Bess (Guest Book Review) #1944Club

When I realized that my mother’s favorite book, Young Bess, was published in 1944, I asked her to contribute a review for the 1944 Club, in which Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings promote a specific year of published books.

Title: Young Bess
Author: Margaret Irwin
Publication: 1944
Genre: Historical Fiction

The original cover
Recently there has been a spate of novels about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his wives. And, of course, Elizabeth I as queen has been extremely visible in fiction, on stage, in opera.  More unusual is the vivid portrait of Elizabeth as a vulnerable girl in Margaret Irwin’s memorable book, Young Bess. It begins in 1546 with the 12-year-old Bess on the ship Great Harry with Henry and his entourage, and ends eight years later at the death of her young brother Edward VI. In between she copes with loneliness, treachery, and dangerous rumors about her relationship with her stepmother’s husband, all the while learning how to survive and eventually to rule. There are many well drawn characters, such as her kind stepmother Catherine Parr, her feisty governess, Cat Ashley, her tutor, Roger Ascham, and the noblemen jostling for power over the boy king.
The book is scrupulously accurate; that is, it makes good use of the historical evidence, and doesn’t go far afield. Obviously, we cannot know what Elizabeth’s thoughts were, or what actually went on between her and Thomas Seymour. But if there are to be historical novels featuring real people, this is a model. Margaret Irwin went on to write two more novels about Bess: Elizabeth, Captive Princess (how her sister Mary imprisoned her in the Tower) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (well, you know that part.) They are very good, but Young Bess rules.
A more recent cover (the popular headless look)
A personal note: somehow I discovered this adult novel in fourth grade. From that moment I was fascinated by the period, and went on to read the rest of the trilogy and much more, and to choose as my college major the Renaissance and Reformation. In England long afterward I saw the original of a letter Bess wrote in 1548. It was a thrill, especially since I had known it word for word since I was ten.

Source: First edition/personal copy
Deborah Kerr was originally to play Elizabeth
in the 1953 MGM movie but wound up as Catherine Parr 
Stephanie Martin

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Christmas Camp (Book Review)

Title: Christmas Camp
Author: Karen Schaler
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2018
Genre: Fiction/Romance
Plot: Haley Hanson is an up and coming brand strategist at Bergman Advertising, and is about to bring in a huge client, Tyler Toys, which should deliver her the partnership she craves. Instead, her boss sends her to Christmas Camp, a feel good week at a quaint country inn where he hopes Haley will learn the true meaning of Christmas. After she returns, he’ll let Haley compete with jovial Tom for the right to pitch the business to Tyler Toys (which is complete unfair, as Haley did all the finagling to get the meeting in the first place; maybe she has a discrimination lawsuit).

Dutifully, albeit gritting her teeth, Haley goes to Holly Peak Inn (presumably somewhere in New England) where Ben Jacoby, a kindly widower, tries to instill a love of Christmas in his guests. His son, Jeff, an architect from Boston, has taken the week off to help his father with the Christmas Camp and because he is hoping to persuade Ben to sell the unprofitable inn and relocate near him. Jeff doesn’t appreciate Haley’s disdain for Christmas traditions but there is an immediate chemistry between them that both unnerves Haley and makes her yearn for his approval. When Haley forgets about the pressures of work, she enjoys the lively group of characters enrolled at Christmas Camp, the two Jacoby men, and even begins to enjoy the holiday activities Ben organizes. However, her growing friendship with Jeff is threatened when Haley, using her small business expertise and enthusiasm, develops a plan to help Ben keep the inn. Can Haley achieve her career dreams, find the spirit of Christmas, and perhaps some true love as well?

Audience: Fans of chick lit and holiday romances – what, you didn’t know that was a thing?

My Impressions: This is a pleasant if somewhat saccharine romance that feels like a Hallmark movie, which is not surprising because (a) the author has written original screenplays for Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies and (b) this is actually going to be a TV movie. What saves the book from an endless parade of angels and Christmas cookies (not that I am in any way anti-cookie – some of you know that my first word was cookie and I have used it frequently ever since) are the appealing characters: Ben, who misses his deceased wife and preserves the inn’s Christmas Camp in her memory; Jeff, who is judgmental but cute; inn guests including teens who rival Haley in their impatience with Christmas traditions; and Max, an endearing golden retriever who likes to wake up Haley at dawn, leash in mouth, hoping for a walk. I wanted to check in myself!

Haley is portrayed as a soulless workaholic who freaks out when she is separated from her phone, and this seems extremely unfair. She knows she will need to create and pitch her vision of Tyler Toys right after she returns to work and Christmas Camp keeps its participants busy with cookie making and holiday decorating from dawn to dusk, which her boss knew, so it is reasonable to stress about the pending assignment. Cute Jeff is offended when she gets distracted by her phone but wouldn’t anyone if she (a) cared about her job, and (b) was about to be sabotaged by a coworker while she is on a mandatory vacation. Although her boss had Haley’s well-being in mind (and wound up being right, I suppose), he reminded me of the men who tell you to smile when you are not in the mood and feel more like kicking them. And what’s wrong with being committed to your job? No one criticized Jeff for dashing to Boston on a work related errand but every time Haley tries to check her email she offends everyone in sight. People need jobs to afford these fancy inns!
Still, it is a cute story and I would definitely watch the movie (air date does not seem to exist yet) or spend a few days at this inn – especially if the attractive innkeeper is included. 

Purchase Links: HarperCollins * Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon
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:


Tuesday, October 16th: A Bookish Way of Life
October 16th: Instagram: @wellreadmama
October 17th: A Chick Who Reads
October 19th: Into the Hall of Books
October 22nd: Ms. Nose in a Book
October 24th: Instagram: @biblio_files
October 29th: Literary Quicksand
October 30th: Books and Bindings

Cookies image copyright to Glorious Treats, http://www.glorioustreats.com/2010/12/christmas-cookies-galore.html

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (Book Review) #1944Club

The 1944 Club is a theme in which two prolific bloggers, Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, promote a specific year of published books. Anyone can join in by reading and reviewing a book published in 1944 and adding a link to that book's review in the comments on Simon's blog. 1968, 1951 and 1977 have also been promoted.
Title: Dragonwyck
Author: Anya Seton, author of Katherine and My Theodosia
Publication: Houghton Mifflin, 1944
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 19th century Connecticut and New York

Plot: Miranda Wells is the delicately lovely daughter of a no-nonsense Connecticut farmer, more likely to be caught reading a book than doing her chores, when her mother receives a letter from a rich cousin. Nicholas Van Ryn, master of a breathtaking estate in the Hudson Valley, Dragonwyck, invites Mrs. Wells to send a daughter to be his daughter’s governess. Abigail Wells has a hard life and wants better for her daughter, so she and Miranda use all their ingenuity to persuade dour Ephraim to let his daughter go (and he nearly changes his mind when they reach New York City and he sees what he considers the useless excess of their hotel, Astor House; he rightly thinks an extravagant lifestyle will go to Miranda’s head).

From the moment Miranda lays eyes on her kinsman, Nicholas Van Ryn, she is captivated by his Tall Dark Stranger looks and charismatic demeanor. She is swept away up the Hudson to Dragonwyck, and awestruck when she first beholds it – a gothic and foreboding mansion that hides dark secrets. Nicholas’ wife is an unhappy woman interested only in sweets (not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless you devour the wrong cake), who immediately resents Miranda, and little Katrine is a stolid child, happier in the kitchen than in the classroom. Nicholas is both a kind benefactor, providing Miranda a beautiful new wardrobe, and a capricious host, ignoring the fact that his wife and guests consider her nothing but a servant. Miranda is so bedazzled by her cousin that she makes excuses for his dark moods, the harsh way he treats his tenant farmers, and his impatience with his family. Everything she observes is colored by the deep attraction she feels for Nicholas, but this is a dangerous yearning that could lead to disaster . . .

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, gothic enthusiasts; those interested in the history of New York State. Seton grew up in New York and Connecticut, and loved history. My Theodosia, which I recently reviewed, is about Aaron Burr’s daughter, known now to millions.
Not Mr Darcy

My Impressions: Anya Seton’s Katherine is one of my all-time favorite books, a magical story, widely considered an outstanding example of historical fiction, and I thank Sister Sessions, the shrewd librarian who led me to it in 7th or 8th grade. Surprisingly, I had never read this one, Seton’s second novel, which is very different, although both are about innocent young women, initially out of their depths, who develop into strong, determined women. Miranda is intimidated by the dark halls of Dragonwyck and her awkward situation, disliked by her hostess and completely in the power of her manipulative host, who can move her to euphoria or misery with a few words. From the minute they meet, the reader experiences the same roller coaster sense of imminent doom as the heroine, although she tries to ignore it.

Dragonwyck is a compelling read, although too over the top to be considered a great novel like Katherine. On the other hand, I read until 3 am, unable to predict where Seton was taking her narrative, and finished it as soon as I got home from work the next night. From the obese, sullen wife and the outspoken doctor to the Irish maid who becomes Miranda’s only friend, Seton creates memorable characters, but most of all lurking in the background is the immense and unnerving Dragonwyck, a character itself, designed by its obsessive owner. And I did not mention the plain spoken doctor from Hudson, the closest town to Dragonwyck, whose sturdiness and integrity is a sharp contrast to the dangerous charm of Nicholas Van Ryn.  Even though we know Nicholas is a bad guy and Jeff Turner is good, Nicholas is far more fascinating!  The reader feels his sensuous appeal along with Miranda.
Part of my fascination with this book is that my grandmother grew up near the imaginary Dragonwyck in Newburgh, New York (where one of the Van Rensselaers mentions a soiree) and I was fascinated by the painstaking historic detail. As always, Seton’s research was exhaustive, and her portrayal of 19th century New York, both the social scene in Manhattan and life on a remote, affluent estate in upstate New York, is vivid and convincing (and does not make me crave to be part of The 400 – although I would choose the most excruciating party over the chicken Miranda is expected to kill and pluck in the first chapter). And the depiction of steamboats racing on the Hudson is enough to give a gentle reader nightmares!

Movie: Friends tell me the movie of Dragonwyck, billed to audiences as in the tradition of Rebecca, starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price, and Jessica Tandy, is well worth seeing but my old author Leonard Maltin only gives it 2 ½ stars. I must ask movie maven Laura her opinion.   She will doubtless appreciate the pageantry of the production.

Source: Library