Book Review Friday: The Underground River

“Conflicted. That’s what the feeling of torn fabric inside of you is called.”

I have been (im)patiently waiting for Martha Conway’s next novel and she did not disappoint. I can’t describe the ease with which you become involved with her characters but they truly come to life. She doesn’t miss a single detail and the characters stay “in character” throughout the book as if they exist somewhere out in the world and are just waiting for you to find them. I was watching the Floating Theatre instead of reading about a fictional scene. Her historical fiction breathes life into time periods that are often lacking the feel of experience and authenticity.

The story starts out with an account of the boiler explosions on the Moselle riverboat on the Ohio River. May is a passenger along with her cousin when the boat begins to sink. She is quick to react and saves the life of a small child that will haunt her nightmares for the remainder of the book. This act of heroism sets the tone for the reader that she is of strong character and can handle any situation. She begins the search for her cousin who has been taken in by a known abolitionist. Her cousin decides to stay and begin a lecture tour for the cause because she will be well cared for, but this leaves May without any income or a place to stay. The abolitionist agrees to pay May $20 for a ticket home to get rid of her as quickly as possible. May wants to continue her life as a seamstress and looks for work near her cousin and lucks into a job on the Floating Theatre. The only catch is the $20 she is paid to return home will be required to get the boat up and running. May is incapable of telling a lie and must learn in order to utilize the money for another purpose than returning home.

Once she has paid Hugo, the captain of the ship, she begins her new career out on her own. Her duties on the boat go far beyond costume design and she has little experience. As May begins to grow and learn she falls in love with the boat and her fellow passengers. She has always been in her cousin’s shadow and now she can stand on her own. The climax of the book comes when May is blackmailed by the abolitionist to pay back the $20 when she discovers her working on the boat and realizes the money was not spent to return home. May must face the decision to work for the Underground Railroad. She has little knowledge of slavery and doesn’t begin to experience the injustices until the boat begins docking on the free North and slave holding South side of the river. The differences become evident and she is torn within herself about what is right and just. She decides to accept the offer since she sees little choice and the reader is lead into an intense “OMG! What is going to happen? She can’t get caught? Agh!” of excitement. The combination of the threat of discovery and the debut of a new play made it hard to put the book down. Conway does an excellent job of combining romance, action, suspense and a fresh perspective on a troubling topic in American history.

This book is simply put, fantastic. Buy it, read it, read it again, and then you can join me in waiting impatiently for her next book! Release date is June 20, make sure to preorder!

Book Review Friday: The Dollhouse

“Where everyone acts like they’re the main character of their own book.”

The Dollhouse is the debut novel from author, Fiona Davis. I decided to read this tale of Barbizon’s Hotel for Women before beginning Davis’s next book. I had never heard of the hotel in Manhattan that housed many famous women as they were starting their careers in the big city. The history is fascinating, and there are several excellent articles covering the women who stayed there and the historical significance of the hotel. Sylvia Plath created a fictional Barbizon in The Bell Jar, after her short stay during an internship for Mademoiselle.

Davis weaves the story of a journalist in modern day with the past of a Barbizon girl trying to make it in the big city. The two women are connected through the hotel which has now turned into condominiums where they both reside. Rose, a journalist for a new startup company, sees a story in Darby almost immediately. As she begins to dig into the past she finds that her instincts were correct. The story is constantly evolving and keeps the reader intrigued. I liked the addition of the twist of mystery mixed with the rich detail of the characters and the history of jazz clubs and heroin trade. My only criticism of this book would be its correlation to the Bell Jar. It has very similar conflicts, and I kept thinking back and remembering events that unfolded almost the exact same way. I am going to be doing a feature on Sylvia Plath and the Bell Jar soon since this has peaked my interest.

This was a different era for women. They could start a career and depend on themselves. New York was a bright, new adventure. It was the city of opportunity. I find it sad that most books in this time period share a moment of men trying to take advantage of a woman. Did this occur often? I can’t say that I’d want to research this topic further but it seems that the assault of women was a common occurrence or at least literature wants us to believe that. Another reoccurring theme is the fear of failure. The women worry about returning home and their bleak possibilities if they are unsuccessful. The shame that these women must have felt had to be brought on by social pressure of the times. I think it’s important to look back at how far women have come and the confidence placed in our right to start a career, fail and keep going. This book does a great job of tying everything together and showing that women can be alone and successful. Stay tuned for my review of Davis’s next book: The Address.

Cassandra, Lost

“This was France. In America, they had said “France is in revolution,” but it had meant nothing to her. Revolution-what was that? It was only words, stories told at dinner, written in a newspaper. She had not expected this excess, this sensation of roughness in the air, this threat that peered at her from every face.”

Cassandra, Lost had so much promise. I was ready for a romantic adventure in France, an intriguing account of time at sea and family strife resolved. This was almost painful to get through. I did not like Cassandra, and her romantic experiences were almost too weird. I do not like to give up on a book, and the story did improve after 100+ pages but not enough to sway my opinion. I could have easily skipped the majority of this book and not felt deprived of any important information. After Cassandra runs away from her family to marry Benedict she is put in charge of her dying mother in law. She doesn’t even leave the house in France until half way through the book, and the historical details are very graphic but the potential for this time in a foreign country was wasted. When she returns, she and Benedict move to New Orleans after her father rejects her advances to repair the relationship. This rejection came through a letter and felt like a false truth. If she loved her father so much, why did she not at least try to go see him? In New Orleans, she meets back up with Jean Lafitte, who she begins an affair with. Overall, this book was disappointing. I think it was a missed opportunity to dig deeper into the world in the late 1800s and develop the setting instead of the awkward romantic ties. 

Somewhere in France

“By the summer she’d have found a place for herself in this war. She was certain of it.”

After reading The Last Summer, I was on the hunt for another war romance. I found Somewhere in France, a novel of the Great War. Lilly is born to a life of luxury, her father the Earl of Cumberland, and was not allowed to attend school or consider a career. Lilly attends a party before the war breaks out and runs into her brother’s best friend, Robbie, and is drawn back into the hopeful wishes of her youth. As the men go off to war, Lilly longs to find a way to contribute to the cause. She goes to her country home to learn to drive (without her parent’s consent) which leads to her finding her true calling in the war. I think this book was pretty predictable, but still entertaining. The romance between Lilly and Robbie brings you back to a time when letters were passed back and forth, and love had patience and strength.

I enjoyed learning about women ambulance drivers in the Great War, and the gritty side of war from a woman’s perspective was very enlightening. An interesting detail is Lilly’s employment with the WAAC, the Women’s Auxiliary Corps, which was founded to replace men with women in noncombat roles. I would love to read more about the women who volunteered for these roles, and the author adds several suggestions for further reading.

The Last Summer

“None of us could return to that briefest of moments before the war, when the heady anticipation of a life unfulfilled lay before us. It had gone forever.”

I just closed the book, and looked up to realize that I’ve not left my recliner for four hours. I don’t know why I’m just now realizing that I’m a hopeless romantic. I couldn’t leave Tom without knowing how their lives would turn out. If you are reading this you are probably wondering what is wrong with this crazy lady. Does she realize that these are fictional characters? Yes, I do realize it and I was so consumed that I forgot the world around me completely. Isn’t that why we all read? This author wrote a book that she would like to read, and it was wonderful. I haven’t read many books set in World War One, but I LOVE historical fiction. I will be thinking about Tom and Clarissa for many nights to come. I wish there were 500, 1000 more pages for me to read. I do not want this to be the end of their story. I would write more, but I’m not ready emotionally to let them go…

Jackaby

“The impression is made. I don’t want to wait at the doorstep any longer. I want to go dashing off after giants and pixies and dragons.”

It is a coincidence that I began the Sherlock series from BBC at the same time I started this book, but it was in the author’s favor. This reads as a classic detective novel, with a Sherlock Holmes style investigator. Abigail Rook arrives in New Fiddleham in need of work and lodging. She escaped her school duties in order to live a more exciting life, leaving her parents in the dark about her plans. She stumbles across an ad for an investigative assistant and finds the adventure she has been longing for. There is a supernatural twist to the crimes, as her new employer Mr. Jackaby, is a seer (of all things supernatural). It is a quick, fun read full of lively characters and ancient creatures that go bump in the night. I knew the murderer fairly quickly, but the story did not disappoint. I could see this becoming a hot new series, or possibly its own TV show. It was easy to tear myself away from Sherlock on the screen, and dive into Jackaby’s adventure. I believe a visit through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work will be added to my growing list of books to read. 

Madame Presidentess

“A woman made strong by her faith, who finds courage in doing what is right, and who will not rest until injustices are vindicated. Are there any finer qualities we can ask of our presidentess?”

I received this as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley for an honest review.

Author Nicole Evelina brings to life a woman often left out of history lessons, Victoria Woodhull. Victoria was the first woman to run for president in the United States. She fought for women’s equality, labor equality, and the right to Free Love. When asked who made up the women’s suffragist movement, we often call to mind Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, not Victoria. She held lectures all across the nation to support women’s right to vote, and even led women to the ballot box only to be turned away. Victoria was the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street, and even had backing from Mr. Vanderbilt to open Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a newspaper to get the message out about equality and governmental policy. She was nominated for the presidency by a new national political organization, the Equal Rights Party. Although she did not win the highest seat in government, she did leave a legacy.

I am always interested in an author’s reason for writing, and it is an interesting after thought that the inspiration for this book came from a pin on Pinterest. The book is well researched and full of information that intrigues the reader. I did find the book a bit dragging in the middle, but the ending quickly tied everything together. Overall, the book took me a bit too long to read, but I am glad I finished. This book is mainly nonfiction, but a few elements have been fictionalized which the author notes at the end of the book.

I look forward to new releases by this author, and will be scrolling through her website observing her research for this book.