I’ve been reading a lot lately, with several novels in the historical genre. I do enjoy well written historical fiction, particularly when it involves the home arts. The stack this time were a diverse group of genres, and time periods. One common theme in all these novels is women trying to make new lives after some kind of trauma or upheaval in their lives. I’ll take them in order of time in history, beginning with pioneer times and ending with modern times. Only one really stood out as a highly recommend.
I had not heard of Westering Women by Sandra Dallas until a blogger buddy sent me an email thanking me for the recommendation. She said she had just started it and was enjoying it. But it wasn’t me that had recommended it. Still, I was in the mood for some historical fiction, so I got a copy at the library and dove in. Synopsis from the publisher “It’s February 1852, and all around Chicago Maggie sees the postings soliciting “eligible women” to travel to the gold mines of Goosetown. A young seamstress with a small daughter and several painful secrets, she has nothing to lose. So she joins forty-three other women and two pious reverends on the dangerous 2,000-mile journey west. None of them are prepared for the hardships they face on the trek through the high plains, mountains, and deserts. Or for the triumphs of finding strengths they did not know they possessed. And not all will make it.” Sounds better than it was.
This story had such promise, but the actual book falls very short. The characters are too flat, and one dimensional. I find it impossible to believe that a woman can lose a child then just shrug it off and continue on her journey. There was a lot of violence, and I am bothered by the characterization of almost every man in the story (other than the two with the wagon train) being an abuser, or a rapist, or a thief, or a drunk. I didn’t think the story had much more than a bunch of women trudging their way west over prairie and mountains. In fact, I was bored through much of it. I kept hoping the story would get better, but it really didn’t. Sad, because I wanted to read about this time period. Not recommended.
A Quilt For Christmas by Sandra Dallas. Synopsis from the publisher “In Sandra Dallas’ novel A Quilt for Christmas, it is 1864 and Eliza Spooner’s husband Will has joined the Kansas volunteers to fight the Confederates, leaving her with their two children and in charge of their home and land. Eliza is confident that he will return home, and she helps pass the months making a special quilt to keep Will warm during his winter in the army. When the unthinkable happens, she takes in a woman and child who have been left alone and made vulnerable by the war, and she finds solace and camaraderie amongst the women of her quilting group. And when she is asked to help hide an escaped slave, she must decide for herself what is right, and who can she can count on to help her.”
Overall disappointing, this story is not about quilting really, although there are a few women that quilt around a frame from time to time. Mostly it is about a war widow and her trials trying to run a farm by herself in the 1800s, with the added dimension of hiding a slave escaping to the north. I was hoping for a holiday story, but Christmas hardly comes into the story at all. The quilt of the title is sent off early in the story, and shows up near the end, but that’s about it. If you enjoy historic fiction, you might like this better than I did.
Reading some of the reviews by others on Goodreads on this next set of novels, I am reminded that expectations play a huge part of how people feel about a book. If expectations aren’t met, the reviews tend to be bad. Such was the case with this set of three novels by Fay Weldon. She writes of British aristocracy at the turn of the last century, and unfortunately, her publisher compares her to Julian Fellows of Downton Abby fame, saying “if you liked Downton Abbey, you’ll love the Love and Inheritance series by Fay Weldon”. Lucky for me I didn’t see that, so my expectations were a lot lower. Ms. Weldon does not have Mr Fellows gift for characterization or plot, but she is the original writer of the pilot episode of Upstairs Downstairs which has a much simpler storyline and less depth than Downton Abbey. But, if you like British aristocrat novels, these are quick and easy reads. The first book was better than the second, and the second better than the third.
Habits of the House by Fay Weldon, synopsis from the publisher “As the Season of 1899 comes to an end, the world is poised on the brink of profound, irrevocable change. The Earl of Dilberne is facing serious financial concerns. The ripple effects spread to everyone in the household: Lord Robert, who has gambled unwisely on the stock market and seeks a place in the Cabinet; his unmarried children, Arthur, who keeps a courtesan, and Rosina, who keeps a parrot in her bedroom; Lord Robert’s wife Isobel, who orders the affairs of the household in Belgrave Square; and Grace, the lady’s maid who orders the life of her mistress.”
Long Live the King by Fay Weldon, synopsis from the publisher “As 1901 comes to an end, there is much to be grateful for: The Dilberne fortune has been restored, and the grand Dilberne Court, with its one hundred rooms, has been saved. Lord Robert’s son, Arthur, is happily married to Chicago heiress, Minnie, who is pregnant and trying to come to terms with her new role as lady of the manor, and her charming but controlling mother-in-law, Lady Isobel. As Lord Robert and Lady Isobel get caught up in the preparations of the coronation of Edward VII, they debate the future of their recently orphaned niece, Adela. Isobel and Minnie want to take her in; Robert and Arthur do not. While they argue, Adela runs away and joins a traveling group of spiritualists and has a life-saving run-in with the king.”
The New Countess by Fay Weldon, synopsis from the publisher “England, 1905. Lord Robert and Lady Isobel Dilberne, as well as their entire regal estate, with its hundred rooms, are busy planning for a lavish visit from King Edward VII and his mistress just a few months away. Preparations are elaborate and exhaustive: the menus and fashions must be just so. But even amidst the excitement, not everyone is happy. Lady Rosina—now widowed and wealthy— insists on publishing a scandalous book despite her mother’s objections. Arthur Dilberne and Chicago Heiress Minnie O’Brien’s two young sons—the eldest of whom is heir to the estate—are being reared to Lady Isobel’s tastes, not Minnie’s. After making a shocking discovery, Minnie will take drastic measures for the sake of her children. And when fate deals a hand in the middle of the royal shooting party, the entire Dilberne estate will face upheaval once again. “
Now, here is something fun that I have never seen before. If you line up the books side by side, the covers intersect into a larger image, the aristocrats on the fronts.
Turn them over, and the downstairs servants images do the same thing. Cool!!
Now for the Highly Recommend!! I was thrilled to receive an advance proof of Marie Bostwick’s newest novel The Restoration of Celia Fairchild, available preorder and will publish in March 2021. It has been fun corresponding with Ms. Bostwick, so of course I had to dive right into this one as soon as it arrived.
Synopsis from the publisher “Celia Fairchild, known as advice columnist ‘Dear Calpurnia’, has insight into everybody’s problems – except her own. Still bruised by the end of a marriage she thought was her last chance to create a family, Celia receives an unexpected answer to a “Dear Birthmother” letter. Celia throws herself into proving she’s a perfect adoptive mother material – with a stable home and income – only to lose her job. Her one option: sell the Charleston house left to her by her recently departed, estranged Aunt Calpurnia. Arriving in Charleston, Celia learns that Calpurnia had become a hoarder, the house is a wreck, and selling it will require a drastic, rapid makeover. The task of renovation seems overwhelming and risky. But with the help of new neighbors, old friends, and an unlikely sisterhood of strong, creative women who need her as much as she needs them, Celia knits together the truth about her estranged family — and about herself.”
As usual for novels by Marie Bostwick, this one is a highly recommend!! Her writing style is funny and very real, with characters who have all the same insecurities as the rest of us. The dialogue feels natural, and the story flows in a way that makes her novels almost impossible to put down. Celia’s relationship with her gay best friend is a hoot, and several times I laughed out loud at his observations and antics. Through joy and heartbreak, Celia rebuilds her life as she restores an inherited, hoarded house to a livable condition. She mends a friendship and finds new connections along the way, taking chances, loving and being loved, and finds that being a part of a family has many definitions. I loved the ending, honoring the past while looking toward a hopeful future, on Thanksgiving day, perfect. Finding a way to make connections resonates with me now, as we all try to navigate our way in this time of reduced activities and constant vigilance. This book of friends and family, of finding a new life from the ashes of the old one, and moving forward in the face of adversity is ultimately heartwarming and hopeful.
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What are you reading? Do you have a book you highly recommend?