The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

I love Melanie Benjamin’s historical fiction, and I love old royalty Hollywood. I probably would have been very disappointed if this combo had let me down…but it didn’t.

The Girls in the Picture front cover (Delacorte Press)

THE PLOT: When Francis Marion meets actress Mary Pickford, she’s not quite sure what role she wants to play in the new business of motion pictures, only that Hollywood is where she’s meant to be. Francis, after two failed marriages, becomes fast friends with Mary, whose own marriage is a disaster. They succeed together as Mary becomes a bigger and bigger star, while Francis finds her niche as a successful screenwriter. But the friends’ priorities and needs change over time. Francis grows up while Mary struggles to remain “the girl with the curls” that her fans adore. When actor Douglas Fairbanks enters the scene, Mary’s obsessions with him and her own youthful identity eventually drive a wedge in the friendship.

MY TWO CENTS: To me, this book succeeds as historical fiction as it immediately had me looking up facts and also looking for the movies discussed. I absolutely love old Hollywood, it’s almost like our version of royalty. And while I knew of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, I don’t think I knew of Frances Marion (travesty!)

I didn’t know how disastrous the Fairbanks’ marriage turned out, though. Really, nothing has changed in Hollywood since the very beginning! They risk everything, give up everything to be together, and then somehow let it all fall apart.

When Mary starts to age out of her famous roles, no one wants to see her change. It’s like the more she struggles to hold on to her youth, and Douglas, and the majesty of Pickfair, the more everything slips away.

And poor Francis really got the raw end of the stick, to have everything come together, to mature and find true love, only to have tragedy strike. It makes for a moving story, but such a shame that it was a TRUE story.

BOTTOM LINE: Great historical fiction, although it is a bit depressing to see someone who had everything pretty much work overtime to throw it all away.

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: The book is available now in hardcover, eformats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens, Book One by Alison Weir

I have been badly neglecting my reviews, but I’m going to try (again) to catch up here a bit. This nonfiction by Alison Weir was released way back in September; it probably won’t be long now until you can get a paperback copy.

Queens of the Conquest front cover (Ballantine Books)

THE COVERAGE: This book covers the first queens of England following the conquest. It starts, fittingly enough, with William the Conqueror’s queen Matilda, followed by Henry I’s two queens, Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain. Next is Henry’s daughter, Empress Matilda, here referred to as Maud. She was meant to inherit the crown when her brother died, but was passed over in favor of her cousin Stephen. We also get coverage of Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne. We just get to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and don’t go into Eleanor (who, let’s be honest, really should just get her own book…which Weir has already written).

MY TWO CENTS: People who read this blog know that I love Weir’s nonfiction. I had also looked forward to this book for years, ever since she first announced that she would write it, and then announced she would split it into several volumes. So why did I have such a very hard time getting into it? I will admit that I was sick for much of the fall/winter, and maybe that dulled my excitement over this book. But it took me a long time, and finally the purchase of the audio version, to get through it all.

While some of the lack of interest may have been just about my personal issues, I just don’t remember every struggling with a Weir nonfiction this much before. I felt like right out of the gate, part of the problem is that there are relatively few primary sources about the Conqueror’s Matilda. There’s a lot of “they probably…” and “they might have…” and some stories Weir passes on as legends that probably aren’t true. I felt like, “So what am I learning here?”

Then, there’s a stupid problem that normally shouldn’t have bothered me: too many Matildas. Everyone is Matilda. Four out of five queens here are Matilda, even though Weir smartly refers to the Empress as Maud instead. But we know darn well she’s really a Matilda. Is it Weir’s fault that Matilda was the most popular name of 11th and 12th-century English queens? Of course not, but it still somehow affected my enjoyment, and my attention span. Another problem: a lot of the other names are unrecognizable in present culture. Half the time I felt like I was reading a Star Wars novel instead of English history. Again, that’s just the way it was back in the mists of time.

Overall, I feel that maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read this book. I intend to reread it at some point, and may even revise my review at that point. But for now, I owe the author and publisher a long-overdue review, and I’m afraid this is it.

BOTTOM LINE:  I looked forward to this book for a long time and then didn’t enjoy it. It might have been the book or it might have been me, so I will probably reread at some point.

TEACUP RATING: I’m going to be fair and give it three out of five teacups, because I really think it just wasn’t a good time for me to read this book.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover, e-book formats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, plus purchase of the audio file.

The Ladies of Ivy Cottage (Tales from Ivy Hill #2) by Julie Klassen

This is the second book in a Cranford-like series focusing on a small English village in the 1800s. Book 1, The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill, was previously reviewed here.

The Ladies of Ivy Cottage front cover (Bethany House)

THE PLOT: This volume focuses more on characters who were more secondary in the first book: Mercy, who lives with her aunt and runs a school; and Rachel, who came from a good family but lost everything. Rachel was being courted by Sir Timothy when her father’s downfall was revealed, and he backed away. Rachel has lost her home to her father’s heir, who wants to marry her. But Rachel would rather find some way to make it on her own (even if genteel ladies aren’t supposed to enter trade) and moves in with Mercy and her aunt. And just maybe, she’s still carrying the torch for Sir Timothy.

Meanwhile, Mercy, the “homely spinster daughter” according to her parents, runs a school at Ivy Cottage even while longing for a child of her own. She may get her chance when a local man wishes her to adopt his secret granddaughter. But of course nothing is simple. Mercy’s parents want her to give up the girl and the rest of the school and marry a teacher. Is there any hope for a little unexpected romance for Mercy?

MY TWO CENTS: I really enjoy Julie Klassen’s books, and I’ve found that a series works even better for her. We do get to revisit the more prominent characters from Book 1, Jane and Thora, and I’m sure we’ll see them again with some resolutions in Book 3. We met Rachel and Mercy in Book 1, too, but we really get their major development here.

As for our main characters, I really admire them both. Each has an easy way out that she refuses to take. Rachel struggles with accepting charity or an easy yet loveless marriage, and then chooses using the resources she has to start up a library. Despite being marginalized by her own mother, Mercy refuses to give up belief that she deserves happiness of her own choosing. However, neither of these plots seem anachronistic. The women aren’t rebels or early feminists; they’re just trying to do their best in the world of their time.

 

COVER NOTES: We see the backs of Rachel and Mercy, wearing appropriate fashions for the time. The titular cottage is on display, and how much would you love to live there??? (With indoor plumbing added, of course.)

BOTTOM LINE: I’m very much enjoying this series, and I think  Julie Klassen has moved to an “auto-buy” status for me.

TEACUP RATING: Five out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in paperback, hardcover, and eformats.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES: The Bride of Ivy Green will be released in December 2018. Check out the author’s series page at talesfromivyhill.com.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Once Upon a Christmas Eve (Maiden Lane #12.75)

Heavy work deadlines and more illness have caused me to miss posting some reviews prior to release dates, again. I had planned to play catch-up all through my week of vacation…which was spent battling some sort of respiratory flu with high fever. Let’s see if I can remind people about a couple of things that came out at the beginning of December…

First up is the (almost) finale to the “Maiden Lane” series. (Why do I say almost? Because Hoyt revealed in her newsletter that newletter subscribers will get a special story in serial format about Joseph Tinbox and Peach, titled Once Upon a Missive. So if you’re a “Maiden Lane” superfan but somehow not on Hoyt’s newsletter list, I suggest you subscribe.) In the meantime, we finally get the story of Lord D’Arque in Once Upon a Christmas Eve.

Once Upon a Christmas Eve front cover (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette)

THE PLOT: Adam Rutledge, Lord D’Arque, is no fan of Christmas, but he his a huge fan of his grandmother, so they’re off to celebrate Christmas when their carriage is wrecked. The closest house where they can find shelter happens to belong to Godric St. John and his wife Megs (of “Maiden Lane” #5, Lord of Darkness. Megs is related to a bunch of other characters, and I’m not going through them all!) The St. Johns are having a party that includes Godric’s sister, Sarah St. John. Sarah has her own reasons for still being unmarried, but her mother has invited an assortment of unmarried young men to try to turn her head. Of course Adam is entirely unsuitable, yet the two are drawn together. Adam will have to pass some tests to prove to Sarah that even unsuitable young men can be honorable.

MY TWO CENTS: What amazes me is that this story was written prior to the #METOO movement. Its release just couldn’t be more timely. You would think that society would have progressed somewhat from the late 1700’s in terms of treatment of women, sexual assault, and slut-shaming, but…maybe not as much as we should have.

So this story focuses very much on the meaning of consent, and gives the hero the chance to show that he is a champion of putting blame where blame truly belongs (which also ends up winning him the approval of his chosen lady’s family). Don’t worry, there are no graphic scenes describing sexual assault; the two instances explored in this book are just enough to make the point. And guess what? Men who stand up for women and their rights are hot.

COVER NOTES: Sarah wears this gown, and I’m always a fan of clothes from the story appearing on the cover. Plus, it’s gorgeous.

BOTTOM LINE: A timely story that wraps up a couple of characters we’d hoped to see again with deft but deferential handling of harassment and assault, which seems pretty universal given its setting and current events.

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in eformats.

NEXT UP FROM AUTHOR:  Hoyt has announced a new three-book series deal, although I don’t think we have any specifics yet. Also, don’t forget that Maiden Lane started out a as a three-book series, so there’s no reason to believe that this one couldn’t expand as well. I’m ready for a whole new world from Elizabeth Hoyt!

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Once Upon a Maiden Lane (Maiden Lane 12.5) by Elizabeth Hoyt

Finally, FINALLY, we get the story of Mary Whitsun! If you don’t know who Mary Whitsun is, either you’re not a true “Maiden Lane” fan or it’s time to go all the way back to the beginning and start rereading!

Once Upon a Maiden Lane cover (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette)

THE PLOT: I honestly just don’t want to give too much away here. Mary Whitsun was one of the original children in the foundling home run by Temperance Dews, Winter Makepeace, and their family way back at the beginning of the series. You know, when the Ghost of St. Giles was  running around. Now grown, Mary has become a nursemaid to the children of Temperance, Lady Caire. In this novella, her true origins are revealed. (Or are they? Wait…yes, they are.) And her true identity may win her an unexpected true love…or will it? (Maybe.)

MY TWO CENTS: So I didn’t totally love the last full-length Maiden Lane book, Duke of Desire (reviewed here), but I DID love this novella! I was partially disappointed in Duke of Desire because we didn’t see many of the other characters. It didn’t make me want to go back to the beginning and read the whole series over. This story definitely does that! (Yes, you get to see the Duke of Montgomery from Duke of Sin, previously reviewed here). And on a related note, if you’re a Loki fan and haven’t seen Thor: Ranarok yet, do go.)

Readers have been asking for a long time for grown-up Mary to get her own story, and Hoyt delivers. It’s a darling story for a character who’s been with the series from the beginning. It’s also a reminder that the “Maiden Lane” series covered all classes. Sure, lots of characters were dukes or otherwise noble, but not everyone was. Some were servants. Some were illegitimate. We even had a pirate. So why not explore the story of a foundling girl who maybe goes from rags to riches? (And that’s all I’m going to say.)

If you want to know the timeline here, this story is chronologically the last in the Maiden Lane universe. Book 1, Wicked Intentions, starts in February 1737. Book 12, Duke of Desire, takes place in April 1742. Once Upon a Maiden Lane is set in September 1747, while the very last novella, Once Upon a Christmas Eve, jumps back to Christmas 1741. (Review coming soon!)

COVER NOTES: This is likely a gown that Mary wears in the course of the story. Also, that gown is just stunning. LOOK at the fabric in that skirt.

BOTTOM LINE: LOVED IT. Mary Whitsun’s long-awaited story doesn’t disappoint! It made me think it’s time to start over with Wicked Intentions and reread the entire series.

TEACUP RATING: Five out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available November 14, 2017, in eformats.

NEXT UP IN SERIES:  The very last “Maiden Lane” entry will be Once Upon a Christmas Eve, available December 5, 2017. I’m going to be devastated when this series is over.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Right Kind of Rogue (Playful Brides #8) by Valerie Bowman

If you’re not familiar with the “Playful Brides” series, all the books are based (loosely) on famous plays. Book #8 is based on Romeo and Juliet (although obviously not a tragedy, because…romance.) This one gives us the story of Hart and Meg, first introduced in Book #6, The Legendary Lord (previously reviewed here). I was really looking forward to this particular couple, but did it meet my expectations?

The Right Kind of Rogue front cover (St. Martin’s Paperbacks/Macmillan)

THE PLOT: Poor Meg Timmons has been in love with her best friend’s brother, Hart, forever. Too bad their families are enemies for a mysterious reason (actually, there are enough clues to figure it out before the big reveal). Meg’s family is dirt poor, so Meg can’t afford the kind of wardrobe it would take to really capture Hart’s interest at balls…or anyone else’s interest, for that matter. Hart’s sister Sarah tells Meg that Hart has finally decided to find himself a wife, but Meg despairs of ever winning him. Enter meddler extraordinaire Lucy Hunt, Duchess of Claringdon (star of Book 1, The Unexpected Duchess).

Lucy takes Meg under her wing, dressing her in new gowns and jewels designed to capture Hart’s attention, and drags her to society balls and parties. Hart takes the bait, and a relationship begins to develop…just not quickly enough for circumstances. So when the meddling eventually goes too far, misunderstandings and mixed messages may tear the lovers apart.

MY TWO CENTS: First, let me get this out of my system: This book suffers from a surplus of Lucy Hunt. I know, she’s known for being kind of a lovable manipulator, but in this story she gets downright annoying. I’ve never been a fan of how she calls everyone “dear,” the way a diner waitress will refer to customers as “hun,” but it seems especially overdone in this title. Plus, she just couldn’t quit and wouldn’t butt out the two or three times Meg told her to.

Second, I was really enjoying this book right up until Hart became an ass. For the first half of the book, Hart defends Meg from her horrible family. He offers to dance with her at balls, thereby making her more visible to eligible gentlemen. He likes her. They develop a friendship. He confides to her the horrible thing that caused him to break up with the woman he almost married. This is all fun relationship building. So you would think the rapport Hart and Meg have developed before the “big misunderstanding” occurs would see them through…but it doesn’t. Hart takes the first opportunity to turn against Meg, and I never forgive him for that.

I really thought after a scene of our duo being safely rescued after “accidentally” being locked in the silver closet, and after Hart confessing how much he’s afraid of being trapped into marriage, that we would not get the “trapped into marriage” trope. And that even if we did, Hart would realize that gentle Meg, his friend, would not be the architect of that trap. Nope; we get Hart raging around like an animal for the second half the book while Meg doesn’t know what to do.

I have no patience with this. If I were Meg, the conversation on their wedding night would have gone something like this:

Hart: I refuse to consummate the marriage! Therefore, you will never have the happy marriage you want, or children, or a family!

Meg: But what I really wanted was to be rich, stay in London, be free of my parents, and never have a man touch me, so actually I have everything I want. Toodles.

Hart: Well…in that case, we WILL consummate the marriage!

Meg: So you’re so much like your father that you’ll do the exact opposite of whatever anyone tells you just to be contrary, even if it’s something you don’t want?

Hart: … (disappears in a puff of logic)

So yeah, first half, good (as a bonus, there’s lots of descriptions of gorgeous gowns…I was really loving the Cinderella aspect of the story!) but second half…I’m not a fan.

Is it like Romeo and Juliet? Well, the families are enemies. A surplus of interference almost does them in (metaphorically). And there’s plenty of verbal poison floating around. Romeo and Juliet is even mentioned a few times, which makes sense in the context of the time period.

COVER NOTES: Between this one and the one for the next book, it looks like the series theme was reinvented again, somewhat. Still a clinch couple, back to more of the headless man pose of the first five books, but with a lush landscape added instead of the one solid color. The colors and florals are pretty and romantic. I like the cover on its own; less so when I realize this is probably the pivotal scene that turns the tide of the book.

BOTTOM LINE: Good up until the hero was a jerk and a friend became downright annoying.

TEACUP RATING: Three out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in paperback and eformats.

NEXT UP IN SERIES:  A Duke Like No Other, focusing on Mark Grimaldi, will be available May 1, 2018.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane #12) by Elizabeth Hoyt

I’m so sad that we’re at the last full-length novel in the “Maiden Lane” series! In my opinion, though, this one plays out very much instead like the end to the miniseries focusing on the Lords of Chaos instead of the full series finale. Maybe it’s because of the two novellas still to come in the next months.

Duke of Desire front cover (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette)

THE PLOT: The Lords of Chaos (an extreme, sexually violent kind of Hellfire Club) have kidnapped Iris, Lady Jordon, mistakenly believing that she is the new bride of the Duke of Kyle. Raphael, the new Duke of Dyemore, is attending the revel to save the woman he believes is the Duchess of Kyle, but also to find out the identity of the group’s new leader. Raphael’s father had been the previous “Dionysus” of the Lord of Chaos (you may remember him from Book 7, Duke of Sin, previously reviewed here.) Raphael plans to destroy the group once and for all, even if he dies in the process.

Raphael claims Iris as “his” plaything for the night in order to rescue her. Iris doesn’t get his intentions right away, though. She doesn’t take to the “lady in distress” role, and ends up shooting her would-be rescuer. The two of them escape to his estate, but Raphael is in a weakened condition. He’s afraid the Lords of Chaos will pounce on them both if they realize he’s in a vulnerable state. Iris is doing her best to nurse him back to health, but of course she’s drawn to the enigma that is Raphael. But Raphael has been so damaged by his father that he has no intention of entering into any kind of relationship with anyone, ever. He insists on marrying Iris immediately to make sure she’s protected, but he doesn’t want her getting close, emotionally or physically.

MY TWO CENTS: If it weren’t for the Lords of Chaos connection, this would almost read like a standalone book and not part of a series…let alone the series finale. I was a little disappointed that more series characters weren’t involved (for example, we do get Kyle at some point, but not Alf).

Let me make this clear: this book is absolutely about sexual violence. Raphael has been very, very damaged by his father. He also has a massive scar on his face (although you’d never know it from the cover), and it’s a bit of a mystery about how the scar was inflicted. But everything is tied to the Lords of Chaos, which is clearly why Raphael wants to end them.

His relationship with Iris is more of a breakthrough on his part, a march back to humanity. He really has no urge to become a person again, but feeling responsible for Iris is the first step. That is one thing that doesn’t thrill me about this book: Iris doesn’t really grow as a character on her own. Her character is pretty much just a catalyst to Raphael’s growth.

This is not a “fun” romance. It’s dark. In fact, Raphael thinks of himself as the darkness and identifies Iris with light. If this weren’t a romance novel, you would sincerely wonder if both characters will survive the book. It’s a good story and a fitting ending to the Lords of Chaos arc. I just don’t love it as the end to the “Maiden Lane” saga, which is why I’m thrilled that two more novellas are coming. We better get a “and here they all are together” wrap-up. I know we had something like that with the last Christmas story, but the series wasn’t over yet, so…yes, please.

COVER NOTES: The model is attractive enough and I like the coloring, but…WHERE IS THE SCAR??? If they didn’t want to show on the scar on the cover, use a profile shot! I think about the cover for Kerrigan Byrne’s The Duke, cleverly shot to hide the missing hand. I also dislike that the publisher is reissuing all the previous books with the “single man” cover. I’m very “eh” about that. I like consistency in a series, and I guess they’re going back to make it consistent with the way the series has evolved over the years…it’s fine. I liked the old covers.

BOTTOM LINE: A good finale to the Lords of Chaos arc, but not a fitting finale to the series. It’s full of darkness, violence, and a romance that helps heal the damaged main character.

TEACUP RATING: I’m wavering between three-and-a-half and four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in paperback and eformats.

NEXT UP FROM THIS AUTHOR:  I will shortly be reviewing the penultimate novella in the series, Once Upon a Maiden Lane, which is at long last Mary Whitsun’s story and releases November 14. Then I’m assuming we’ll get the real series wrap-up in the final novella, Once Upon a Christmas Eve, which releases December 5.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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