Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review Tuesday (Slightly Late)...and a Diatribe on Historical Romance

My apologies for being slightly late for "Review Tuesday". I blame the Labor Day holiday on Monday as yesterday did not feel like a Tuesday.

Today I'm reviewing "The Day of the Duchess" by Sarah MacLean. It is a historical romance. Some of you may be thinking, "Why is Caroline reading historical romances?" Well, here goes. For those of you have been long time readers, you probably already know that my own writing is essentially historical romance. I have always preferred "historical fiction with strong romantic elements" but the publishing field does not always recognize this as a genre. They should. Really. Why? Because I find that people who write "historical fiction with strong romantic elements" spend a great deal of time getting the historical part right. I'm obsessive about getting the details correct--everything from language to clothing, and all things in between.

Recently, I've noticed a lot of chatter on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook group (and other places) about the trend in historical fiction towards making characters a bit too unique, as in taking one historically documented person who did terrific things or went against the grain, and using that as a backup to characters doing very unhistorical things. I will admit that I verged on that with "Rebel Heart". My heroine Julienne was pretty bad ass to start with--sort of like Mati Hari (who didn't come on the scene for many more decades) and Belle Boyd (a real Civil War spy) rolled into one. Sure, there are plenty of documented Civil War female spies on both sides of the fight, so I feel like Julienne's part in the spy ring was justified. She probably is a little too independent for the time period, but I like to believe that when dealt the hand she was given, the human spirit kicks in and does what it needs to do, no matter what the time period.

Image resultMy issue with "straight" historical romance (meaning those novels with scantily clad ladies and gents on the cover), is that the authors often twist the time period and characters to suit modern day attitudes. This is what I encountered in "The Day of the Duchess". I was initially attracted to this novel because it features one of my favorite tropes, the second chance romance. In the novel, which is set in 1830s England, Seraphina Talbot and Malcolm, the Duke of Haven fall in love, but "Sera" is the daughter of a new earl, who won his title playing cards with Prince Regent many years before. I'm thinking that this is a stretch as well. Prinny, as the Prince Regent was known, was not a model citizen, so I could see this happening, but still, it's a stretch. In any case, Seraphina and her many sisters are known as the "Soiled S's". They all have "S" names which gets pretty ridiculous when you get down to Sesily (instead of Cecily). But I digress.

Because she is considered "beyond the pale", Seraphina doesn't trust the Duke to propose, even as they have imperiled her reputation with a lot of furtive glances and hand holding. Worried that her sisters will not be able to make decent marriages, Sera and her mother concoct a scheme to ensure that Duke makes an honest woman of her. Of course, the Duke does and when he finds out that he has been trapped, he is not a happy camper. Loads of bad things happen and Sera leaves Malcolm. She finds her fortune in a Boston tavern, and this is where I start to roll my eyes a bit. Sera has quite the singing voice, and after making friends with an enterprising American, takes to the stage as "The Dove".

Three years pass and Sera has decided that she wants to return home to England. She is hell bent on getting a divorce from Malcolm and running her own tavern in Covent Garden. The one thing that MacLean did get right was the fact that married women could not own property--anything that they owned belonged to their husbands. Also, divorces required an act of Parliament, which MacLean does detail, but it is a very simplistic explanation. Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, the only cause for a full divorce was adultery, at least for the husbands suing their wives for adultery. If a wife brought a case against the husband, she had to prove adultery and life threatening cruelty. So when Sera storms Parliament demanding a divorce, I found myself rolling my eyes once more. While Malcolm was a brute and cheated on Seraphina, there is no life threatening cruelty involved. Maybe emotional cruelty, but even then, that's a stretch, and it certainly wouldn't have held up in the 19th century. Sera convinces Malcolm that she is involved with her American business partner, so he promises to give her a divorce...if she helps him find a new wife. Of course, this is all an elaborate plot to win Sera back because Malcolm still loves her, even though he was a major idiot when they first married. But once again, this is starting to get outside of the realm of historical reality. MacLean leans heavy on the fact that Malcolm is a duke and therefore a "catch". The ladies that line up to vie for his hand are all newly minted debutantes. I am thinking that their families would not have wanted their daughters to marry a divorced lord, no matter what his title was. But we have very little information to figure this out as only 337 divorces were granted by Parliament before things changed in 1857.

I could go on about all the historical things that were just plain wrong in this novel, but I won't. And this is why I shy away from calling my novels "historical romances". I'm too entrenched in telling the truth, and so when I read something that plays hard and fast with the established facts of history, I get a bit touchy. I love romance, though you probably couldn't see that from looking at me. Is it so hard to write a historically accurate historical romance? What drives the established authors of the genre to commit such acts of...well fiction? Does the average reader of historical romance not know, or perhaps even worse, not care?

So, my review of "Day of the Duchess". MacLean is actually a great author. She does an excellent job with characterizations, even if some of them are a bit far fetched. Her prose is bit to "pretty" for my tastes but I'm sure it appeals to a lot of readers. Should you pick up this novel? Sure. If you are not acquainted with random historical nuances (such as I am) or you just want a fun read. There is a happy ending, though in some of the other reviews that I read, folks were not happy with sappy, predictable epilogue. To each his own, I suppose. "Day of the Duchess" is the third book in the "Scandal and Scoundrel" series by MacLean. Sera and Malcolm first appear in the first book of the series, "The Rogue Not Taken", which features Sera's younger sister, Sophie.

For more insight on marriage and divorce laws in England, check out the life and work of Caroline Norton. She is the reason that the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. Her story is actually extremely sad, and when you compare the circumstances to fictitious renderings of divorce during the period, you might feel a little ashamed.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review Tuesday: Stars Over Sunset Boulevard

Happy Tuesday folks and welcome to another edition of "Review Tuesday." I'm going to split this post between a novel that I read and reviewed last year, and a podcast that I have been enjoying lately.

First, I read "Stars Over Sunset Boulevard" for the Historical Novel Society in 2016. I wrote a feature on the novel which included an interview with the author, Susan Meissner. You can read that interview here.

"Stars Over Sunset Boulevard" is a fascinating look at the filming of "Gone with the Wind" as seen through the eyes of two female secretaries living during the golden age of Hollywood. Audrey is an enigmatic aspiring actress who befriends VIolet, a recently arrived southern girl running from a broken engagement. Audrey shows Violet the ropes of living in Hollywood and the two women become fast friends. But as Audrey becomes increasingly desperate to get her break, the two friends grow apart, particularly when a key costume piece goes missing from the set, and Violet uses the situation to ignite a relationship with Burt Redmond, Audrey's oldest friend.

"Stars Over Sunset Boulevard" is an interesting read though some portions seem unnecessary. Violet and Audrey easily carry the novel yet a modern day story line interrupts things. Readers may come to resent these intrusions and while everything ties together in the end, the novel may have been stronger without it. Also there are times when it seems like Audrey never has to pay for her many mistakes. She constantly comes out on top while Violet lives in fear that her comparatively few and less serious misdeeds will come to light. But all in all, the novel is a good read and is very enjoyable, and will appeal to those who love stories set during Hollywood's Golden Age.

YMRT-Clean.jpgAnd speaking of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I have recently become obsessed with podcasts. I know I'm late to the party, but better late than never, right? The podcast is called "You Must Remember This" and as creator Karina Longworth explains, it is a show dedicated to the "secret and/or lost history" of Hollywood's first century. I will say that this podcast is addictive so be prepared. The show has several seasons, my favorites being "MGM Stories" and "Dead Blondes". It just wrapped with a series about Jean Seburg and Jane Fonda, who led, in many cases, parallel lives. I didn't quite get into this one, but that doesn't mean that it won't appeal to some. New shows are expected this fall and I can't wait to see what the subject will be. Check out the website, where you can stream episodes and also take part in a forum, if that's your jam. There are also notes on the episodes and a film club that highlights the films mentioned on the show. The podcast is also available on iTunes.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Where I've Been: An Update in Five Paragraphs

As I briefly noted in Tuesday's post, I am mounting a comeback tour for Caroline Wilson Writes. So...where have I been? Well for many of you who have been following me for a few years, you know that my education background is in historic preservation, and for various reasons, I had not been able to pursue that in my day-to-day career. In December 2016, I was finally able to score a job in the field, but this required a move to my old college town of Charleston, SC.

Looking back on my time in the city during college, it was a prolific time of writing. I suppose it had something to do with being surrounded by 300 years of history. I have often mentioned that I struggle with writing. I love to do it but I get burned out easily and often don't have the motivation. It's a sad state of affairs given that I have half a dozen novels in various stages of progress. But in the last few weeks, I've begun to feel an irresistible pull towards researching and continuing on with a novel that I started about a year ago. It is in its very early stages, but I will confess that it will be set in the waning years of Gilded Age New York. More on that in a future post.

Now, how to balance my writing life with my work life. I don't have an answer to this. Being that I am professionally fulfilled for the first time in my working career (sad, I know), I often give all of myself during the day, with little left over in the evenings for writing. Previous to this job, I was often underutilized in my working roles, which left lots of extra time during the day to do what I wanted in terms of writing, researching, or networking online. So going forward, I have to devise a system for balancing everything.

So what am I doing with my days now? Well I work for a consulting firm that specializes in helping developers get federal tax credits for renovating historic buildings. What does that boil down to? I spend a lot of time writing complicated technical documents and reviewing architectural plans. But I do get to travel some and go through some super cool old (and often abandoned) buildings. So far this year, I've been all around South and North Carolina, with trips to Georgia, Florida, Memphis, TN, and Birmingham, AL. I hope to highlight some of my work travels in the blog since they deal with history.

That's all for now. Welcome back everyone and thank you for sitting tight while I spent some time away. I hope to post every Tuesday and Thursday going forward. Tuesdays will be devoted to reviews of historical fiction and sometimes non-fiction, or interesting documentaries or podcasts that I'm digging. Thursdays will be updates for my writing/research endeavors/travels. I'm looking forward to sharing my life and writing aspirations with you once again!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review Tuesday: "The English Wife" by Lauren Willig

Hello all and thank you for tuning in. I know I've been sporadic at best with my musings and reviews in the last couple of years. I'm aiming to change that, but I will detail those changes in a different post.

So... "The English Wife" by Lauren Willig. I will say that I was a huge fan of Willig's first few books in the "Pink Carnation" series. Her writing was witty and fun, while combining great historical stories with modern day story lines. Now around the fifth entry of the series, I tapped out. I'm not a fan of the never ending series, no matter how good it is. So when Willig started writing standalone novels, I sat up a took interest. I tried reading "The Other Daughter" and just couldn't get into it. But "That Summer" returned to the formula of combining a modern day mystery with a historical plot line and I was hooked.

"The English Wife" returns to a wholly historical plot and it is done very well--to a point. Though now that I think of it, it would have been interesting to see it in the same format at "That Summer" with a modern day protagonist trying to solve a historical mystery. But I digress.

"The English Wife" is set in Gilded Age New York, and told from two perspectives--Janie Van Duyvil and Annabelle Van Duyvil. The catch is that Janie is telling the story from 1899 and Annabelle is slightly in the past (1895). The two women tell their stories until the timelines match up in the end, which is rather clever. Janie is the daughter of a distinguished, monied New York family. As the novel opens, her older brother Bay has been murdered and his beautiful English wife Annabelle is missing. Janie is determined to solve the mystery as she is convinced that her sister-in-law would have never murdered the man she loved.

Janie teams up with Burke, an intrepid news reporter with no love for New York's aristocracy. Their attempts to discover the real killer are interspersed with flashbacks featuring Annabelle. Before she met Bay Van Duyvil, she was an actress in a burlesque show, fleeing from her past. She meets Bay on a whim, and is immediately distrustful, but their shared love for Shakespeare joins them together. Their friendship blooms into love and love into marriage, but it is not long before cracks begin to show. What results in the end are devastating secrets being revealed.

"The English Wife" was a page turner for the first two hundred pages or so. But as the novel should have been climaxing, it just ran out of steam. I actually sat it down for several days and only picked it up today to finish. I loved Janie, who was truly trying to be the good daughter, but in the end decided to follow her heart. Annabelle and Bay's story is heartbreaking; their characters were both flawed, and as a result, their marriage becomes a sham. So what went wrong? For one thing, I just could not buy into who Willig chose to commit the murder. It makes sense on the surface, but there were other characters that had better motive. While I applaud Willig for taking the road less traveled, the result was forced, and frankly, nonsensical to a point.

So would I recommend the novel? Sure. The suffocating atmosphere of Gilded Age New York is done well and lends a darker feel to the novel. I enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to reading whatever Willig has up her sleeve next. I really liked the fact that "The English Wife" was a true departure from her other historical novels. The book is out on January 9, 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon and all the other usual places. A big thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin's Press for the advance copy.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: "Enemies of Versailles" by Sally Christie

Long time, no see folks! I thought it was worth coming out of hibernation to review the final installment Sally Christie’s Versailles Trilogy. Enemies of Versailles focuses on the last of Louis XV’s mistresses, Jeanne de Becu, Comtesse du Barry. Jeanne often gets a bad rap in history as she was a courtesan before becoming Louis’ Maitress en Titre. She was frequently called a whore and was considered grasping and flashy.

Enemies features Christie’s compelling and refreshingly humorous voice. I will admit that this last installment is not quite as compelling as the two previous entries. I believe this is because the novel is comprised only of Jeanne’s point of view as well as Madame Adelaide, Louis’ oldest surviving daughter. Nonetheless, it is still an enjoyable read.
Christie’s portrayal of Jeanne is much more forgiving, which is what makes her such a wonderful author. It is hard to make a reviled character likeable, yet it is easy to warm up to Jeanne. She was simple person who enjoyed the finer things in life. She rarely engages in politics.

The same cannot be said of Madame Adelaide. Nothing is likeable about her character, although her ability to remain completely blinkered to the outside world is amusing at times. She does undergo a bit of a redemption towards the end of the book as she realizes that infallibility and royalty are not the same thing.

History tells us that Jeanne de Becu did not have an easy end. While Louis XV’s remaining daughters escaped France at the beginning of the Revolution, Jeanne was not so lucky, and unfortunately we are with her right up to the very end. Her death was an unfortunate consequence of the overzealous Revolutionaries.

Enemies of Versailles is a fitting capstone on this excellent trilogy. Christie’s wit is fully on display while still capturing the upheaval of the last years of the Ancient Regime. I’ve read that Christie is hard at work on a new novel; I, for one, cannot wait to see the finished product!