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Historical fiction and Biblical fiction, reviewing since 2008

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Jan 31, 2012

Review: The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (pseudonym for Patricia O'Brien)
Doubleday February 21st 2012
ISBN13: 9780385535588
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:Enjoyable read

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.


Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.


On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period's glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love.
This is the story of Tess Collins who is eager to leave her life as a maid behind in England. She has talent at being a seamstress with an eye for design, and as she looks for a new life in America she conveniently bumps into one of the biggest designers of her time, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon. They both sail together to America on the Titanic, where Tess is immediately thrust into the world of haves and have-nots. She finds herself stuck somewhere in between, with two men from opposite ends of the social class who take notice of Tess.

While Tess tries to piece together what she is capable of and where she belongs, she is at the beck and call of the imperious Lady Duff Gordon. Lady Duff Gordon is the epitome of a snobbish shrew with a dash of psychosis tendencies, with a husband who does nothing to improve upon this picture. Tess realizes their duplicity but she struggles with the fact that this woman is the only one who can immediately offer Tess a dream come true.

However, the aftermath of the Titanic must be dealt with as inquiries and testimony are required from the survivors. What happened on Lifeboat One is one of the most scandalous and newsworthy topics, as it is rumored that the Duff Gordons bribed the men on their lifeboat as they sailed to safety, not allowing any stragglers from oily blackness of the sea on their boat. And covering all of the news is Times reporter Pinky, a name I detested, as she was deserving of much more. Pinky was the character who strung them all together, from Tess to the crewmen and the rest of the personal stories she covered, who had a side story of her own.

A strong plot line and always an intriguing historical event is the fate of the Titanic. The Dressmaker has a lot to live up to, and even though some of the characters bear the factual names of those in reality, the driving force of the story is the romance between Tess and her wishy-washiness between her two loves. I cannot think of anything to complain of writing-wise, but the characters that the author created surrounding this tragic event could have used a bit more fleshing out. While there is still a lot of potential for this debut author, this is the one story that could have been treated as an epic saga given all the famous notables and the look at human nature in the face of tragedy (as well as corporate cover up, etc). With the many lives lost on the Titanic, this should have been a story that pulled at my heart and make me go through a box of tissues, but instead it was simply what the titles implies, a story of a dressmaker. And even with the hope for something more, I did enjoy the dressmaker's story as it was set against that intriguing backdrop of the Titanic with a broad spectrum of characters.

I also wanted to add that I had read another review before reading the book which stated there were French phrases, or conversations, which encumbered her enjoyment of the book. I was so looking forward to these French phrases, but I remember only seeing two.

I read Danielle Steel's No Greater Love back in the '90s which was my first real intro to the Titanic, and I remember being deeply moved by it, reading it several times. Then of course came the blockbuster film with DeCaprio. What novel would you recommend that really knocked your socks off that was set against the Titanic? I would love to read more about it and the real people aboard the ship, and I need your help finding that story, as The Dressmaker didn't fulfill that need for me. Edited to add that I found out after the fact that Patricia O'Brien actually wrote this.. and knowing that, I am even just a bit disappointed. She needs to dig a little deeper and pull out some real emotions on these big topics. I know she can do it!

Jan 24, 2012

Review: The Darlings by Cristina Alger

The Darlings by Cristina Alger
Viking/Pamela Dorman Books
February 16, 2012
Hardcover, 352 pages
9780670023271
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:Glittery forbidden fruit stars


A sophisticated page-turner about a wealthy New York family embroiled in a financial scandal with cataclysmic consequences.
Now that he’s married to Merrill Darling, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to New York society and all of its luxuries: a Park Avenue apartment, weekends in the Hamptons, bespoke suits. When Paul loses his job, Carter offers him the chance to head the legal team at his hedge fund. Thrilled with his good fortune in the midst of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, Paul accepts the position.
But Paul’s luck is about to shift: a tragic event catapults the Darling family into the media spotlight, a regulatory investigation, and a red-hot scandal with enormous implications for everyone involved. Suddenly, Paul must decide where his loyalties lie—will he save himself while betraying his wife and in-laws or protect the family business at all costs?
Cristina Alger’s glittering debut novel interweaves the narratives of the Darling family, two eager SEC attorneys, and a team of journalists all racing to uncover—or cover up—the truth. With echoes of a fictional Too Big to Fail and the novels of Dominick Dunne, The Darlings offers an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society—a world seldom seen by outsiders—and a fast-paced thriller of epic proportions.

Wall Street crumbles, the financial crisis consumes every one's retirement, and the American dream as we know it has become a nightmare. To stay off my soap-box to write this review is tough, as I blame these exact movers and shakers of Wall Street and their business partners as the reason most of us are struggling to pay our bills. In the wake of Bernie Madoff, the author brings us a fictional wealthy family, the Darlings, and all of their acquaintances and co-workers to bring us the story we thought we knew. And even though we find it difficult to feel sorry for these overbearing and pretentious people, the author writes it so well that we really want to know what happens to the Darlings when the bottom finally drops out. And we all know it will, because we are living in the recession that Wall Street helped create for its fellow Americans.

With each introduction of yet another character, the inevitable drop doesn't come quick. Instead we watch via the myriad of characters with bated breath.. waiting, reading, and somehow falling in love with the story that we know ends with the tragic fact that just one victim of millions is that the widow down the street no longer has a life savings to live off of. Paul Ross, General Counsel, is married to his boss's daughter, and Paul is the one we focus on, as he is the one who was innocently roped into this intense financial mess the firm created. We can easily root for this gentle Southerner who was inadvertently trapped in a New York minute by his wife's family. Some of the intricate details of the financial world come into play here, but I was lucky enough to have passed two securities exams back in the day, so much of it was old-hat to me. And a lot of New York and Long Island are featured, which is where I grew up (as a figure of speech). These behind-the-scenes montages could become boring to some, but I was sucked into the story from the opening scene when Morty jumped off the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The story develops around the investigation of Morty's hedge fund business, with the SEC closing in on this fraudulent business and the media itching to get out in front of the looming debacle of what Morty left behind.. which is the Darling family business.. except who was going to take the fall? Would they set the innocent Paul up as the sacrificial lamb? Or is everyone going down? As a New Yorker herself, the author gives us a refreshing angle at how the other half lives - making no apologies, and leaving nothing to the imagination and simply writes it in a matter-of- fact style. She doesn't try to force empathy onto any of the characters, she simply tries to shed light on the puzzle of how the dominoes may fall. There were so many characters I was impressed with the weaving of them all, as the web threatened to snag them all. Cristina Alger deftly writes us an evocative story that is a bit like a taste of forbidden fruit.. you know it's not going to be a happy ending, but still it's one you know is going to have a twist.. and it is so much fun getting there. Even though the final scene seemed a bit abrupt and contrived, this was an enticing story and I would definitely be interested in what comes next from this author.

Read an excerpt.

Jan 18, 2012

Review: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox


Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
Non-Fiction
Random House, January 31, 2012
Hardcover 432 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:

The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister, offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right.

When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

We know of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand through their legacy of Christopher Columbus and the Inquisition. Yet, they also brought forth the legacy of their predecessors, and two of them are daughters Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. Juana of Castile is the tragic figure we recognize as the mad woman scorned and betrayed, and her sister Katherine of Aragon is the pious yet strong willed first wife of Henry VIII whom he famously cast aside for Anne Boleyn. The men created the events around their lives, and helped shape their legends. But exactly who these women were five hundred years ago is the subject of Julia Fox's newest non-fiction work, Sister Queens.

When reading about historical figures in the biographical context, I am used to the terms would-be, could-be, may have.. but I did not find an abundance of those phrases here - a refreshing change of pace that is unlike Alison Weir's writing. (Refreshingly absent is Weir's over-used eye-rolling phrase "we'll never know"). Leaving no stone unturned, Julia Fox seemingly examines and discusses all the details that she unearthed from her research from the Spanish Archives and the chronicles of the times, as apparently there are many letters and accounts which still survive. Katherine of Aragon's plight of being a widow is discussed thoroughly as she awaits the approval of her marriage to the future Henry VIII, while Juana's supposed madness is slowly wrapping its web around her reality as she finds herself in extreme isolation which began with her husband's ways and continued with her own father and ultimately her own son, Charles the Holy Roman Emperor.

Getting to the heart of the characters of the two sisters is a complex feat, but is accomplished as realistically as possible through the author's eyes. The leadership traits of their mother, Queen Isabella, are easily seen in both Juana and Katherine, and one wonders how far they would have gone if it were not for the chains of male prejudice holding them back. The author clearly wants this realization to come to light as she shows time and again how the men in their lives continued to wreak certain havoc with no regard for the thoughts of Katherine or Juana. And their father Ferdinand really seems like the type of man one would love to hate.

There is more evidence available for Katherine's life, as she was not as secluded and pushed aside as much as Juana was. Juana's husband began the rumors of her madness, and sadly enough her father King Ferdinand perpetuated these rumors which led to Juana's imprisonment. When Juana was given a rare chance to come out of her seclusion for the sake of Castile, she dissembled and lost the opportunity. Thus, Juana's story is one of rumor and innuendo, with no one on her side to plead her case, and when certain red flags were waved, they were ignored. Essentially shut up, Juana was easily forgotten. Bred to be a Queen, she had the foresight to be a great one, yet she chose to not display her mother's traits to those who mattered. She was reduced to tantrums at times, which provided enough fodder for those who liked to denounce her abilities. Juana's disappointing trait (downfall?) was her stalwart defense of her family. In contrast, Katherine was busy being the Queen of England, and epitomizing it in every sense of the phrase due to her extreme faith in the fact that Queen of England was what God had wanted for her. This faith, and the upbringing of Katherine, propelled Katherine into a woman to be reckoned with, someone who would even oppose her King of a husband in order to protect her soul and her constant belief in what was God's will.

Readers interested in the details of Katherine and Juana could not be disappointed with this telling of facts. It is well researched, well written and brings forth the hearts and souls of the sisters where we once only felt shadows. The author explains the traits we know these woman had and helps to flesh them out using many details and events of their lives. To get to the pathos of these women, we are obliged to touch on the details from the politics of England, Spain, to France and the Netherlands and onwards even to Burgundy, and throw in the many pregnancies and the many advisers and everyone in between and there is a complete a picture of these two sisters and their family dynamics. Katherine's great-nephew Philip marries Katherine's daughter, Mary, in what should have been a triumphant final stamp of Spain on England, yet we know that it is this same Philip who unsuccessfully wages war on England. Sister Queens is an exhaustive and detailed work surrounding these sisters, as I look forward to the next Julia Fox work with more anticipation than I would one by Alison Weir.