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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel


Jun 17, 2021

2021 Book Reviews


In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters by Nancy Goldstone

The author, who previously depicted European royal women from the medieval era and Renaissance, provides a tour de force joint biography of four eminent females of the 18th century Hapsburg dynasty. The dominant and most influential figure is Maria Teresa, unexpected heiress of the Austrian empire—which included Hungary, Bohemia, Silesia, portions of Italy, more. From the outset of her reign, the young empress had to contend with masculine diffidence, or in the case of various military officers, incompetence, while her territories were encroached upon and frequently seized by Frederick of Prussia, whose “greatness” arose from schemes, persistent betrayal of allies, and determination to conquer as much and as many lands as possible. Often he defeated the empress’s forces, but sometimes she prevailed. An adoring wife to a philandering spouse, designated emperor by her design, mother to more than a dozen children (not all of whom lived), intensely Catholic, and reform-minded, she was a powerful influence on the three daughters whose lives are also minutely and incisively examined.

Artistic Maria Christina, “Mimi,” an older daughter, was a favorite of her pleasure-seeking father Francis, and served her empress-mother as helpmeet, confidante, and best friend. Her matrimonial happiness was initially stymied—the man she loved was initially disregarded as unworthy of a Hapsburg archduchess. Once married, the pair were sent off, though not very far in terms of distance, to rule Hungary. After her mother’s death, Mimi’s older brother Joseph—nearly as dangerous a character as Frederick, whom he revered—placed the skilled and diplomatic couple in the Netherlands, where they and their extensive and valuable art collection were potential victims of the radical republican wave flowing from France, and were eventually forced to flee from Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces.

 Her sister Maria Carolina had the great misfortune to be united in wedlock to the dreadful Ferdinand, King of Naples. It turned out to be the making of her. As forceful a character as her mother, she succeeded in winning a seat on her husband’s council—by virtue of bearing the requisite male heir—and essentially became ruler in his stead, leaving him to enjoy hunting and bedroom exploits. She found a friend in Emma, Lady Hamilton, the beautiful and scandalous young wife of the venerable British Ambassador, and who enlisted her help in supplying Lord Nelson with ships in his time of need. She bore numerous children, losing several when fleeing an invasion by the French as Napoleon rampaged across Europe by land and by sea.

 The most famous, or infamous, is the youngest of Maria Theresa’s daughters, Maria Antonia. Her youthful frivolities as archduchess accompanied her into a new life as dauphine of France, where she became Marie Antoinette. Though the future Louis XVI was neither as uxorious as Maria Cristina’s spouse, nor as repulsive as Maria Carolina’s, he was no great catch—his prospects notwithstanding. Goldstone convincingly makes the case that his awkwardness, halting speech and reclusive habits were indicators of an autism spectrum disorder. Over time he formed a bond with his wife, who, to her credit, seemed capable of accepting him as he was. After the couple ascended the throne, Marie gradually became more serious, even more political, and was a devoted mother. Axel Fersen, her lover, went to extraordinary lengths to remove Marie and Louis from France, relying on the assistance of her two older sisters. His relationship with the doomed queen, the author asserts, was not only romantic but also sexual. She identifies him as the father of her two youngest children, including the short-lived Louis XVII, who died soon after his parents were led to the guillotine.

 The family saga is brilliantly rendered, sweeping the reader from the earliest part of the 18th century into the Napoleonic age in the first part of the 19th. Her subjects are presented as women who were tested almost beyond endurance, deeply flawed yet inherently moral and honest, and all too often misjudged. Goldstone’s style is eminently readable and entertaining—this is no dry history—no small feat when covering such a lengthy timeline and the myriad complex relationships, familial and royal and political. She has a gift for connecting events and dates, tossing in reminders of precisely how past actions and decisions affected and relate to what transpired afterwards. Very highly recommended, to the dedicated and the casual reader of history, and anyone seeking proof that royal women were more than symbolic mannequins swathed in velvet and wearing a crown.

 (Little, Brown and Co., hardcover/ebook, 640 pp, 21 September 2021)




 Unearthing The Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

This sensitive, appreciative, and exquisitely illustrated book is a welcome gift to fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel. It has guaranteed appeal for those who share the author’s passion for gardening—roses in particular—and many writers who find inspiration in the natural world. McDowell traces Burnett’s earliest gardening influences, from her floral-themed childhood alphabet book to an abandoned walled garden in Salford in the north of England, to the very different environment of Tennessee, to which her widowed mother emigrated.

 Unexpectedly, Burnett did not actually become a gardener until the age of fifty, long after achieving her youthful success as a writer for the most popular journals of her day, and following marriage, motherhood, the creation of the iconic and influential novel Little Lord Fauntleroy, her tragic loss of a young son, and inevitable divorces. It was the fortuitous purchase of Maytham Hall in Kent, an unadorned canvas upon which she could paint in flowers of all kinds, but mostly roses, that provided her with an Arcadia to absorb a considerable amount of her substantial fortune. The combination of walled gardens, rose arbors, orchards, and a friendly robin did not immediately find their way into her fiction. Only after she was forced to abandon it, in order to join her surviving son in New York, did her memory and imagination produce The Secret Garden. Her depiction of contrary Mary Lennox’s rebirth and renewal within the brick walls of her Yorkshire oasis (Maytham transformed into the more massive Misselthwaite Manor well to the north) arose out of longing for a place lost to her creator. But Burnett did find solace in making new gardens—at her London Island mansion and later the Bermuda cottage to which she fled in avoidance of harsh American winters.

 McDowell draws upon her subject’s memoir and many writings, but also family papers, and presents the reader with a wealth of photographs of Burnett within her gardens, and the gardens of Maytham as they exist in the present. In the final section, she includes a selection of Burnett’s gardening articles as well as a list of plants she grew. In the afterward, a great-great granddaughter briefly reflects on the familial connection to the classic novel. This book is a treasure, one for absorbing, reading and re-reading—and sharing with likeminded persons.

 (Timber Press, hardcover/ebook/audio, 320 pp., 28 September, 2021)




Teatime at Grosvenor Square: An Unofficial Cookbook for Fans of Bridgerton―75 Sinfully Delectable Recipes by Dahlia Clearwater


 This charming collection, inspired by the Netflix series based on Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton historical romance novels, offers seventy-five options for entertaining, from sweet treats to meats. The introduction to each recipe makes generic references to characters, settings, plot points, or society rules familiar from the episodes. Several options for scone-making are presented—the classic English scone (fluffy and tall), as well as various modern variations. There are examples of actual Regency fare encountered in Quinn or Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer: ratafia biscuits, flummery, white soup, blanc mange, trifle, orgeat, mulled wine, and meat pie. The cakes live up to the “delectable” description of the title. For main dishes, anyone seeking more solid sustenance will be pleased to find recipes for lamb, duck, turkey, and ham. This would be a welcome addition to any cookbook shelf, even one belonging to the minority of cooks who might be entirely ignorant of Bridgerton world. (‎Skyhorse Publishing, hardcover/ebook, 152 pp., 22 June, 2021)




The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

As a connoisseur of ballet books—fiction and nonfiction—I now rank Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s fiction debut at the very top of my list of the best, along with an obscure, out-of-print treasured title. The Ballerinas exquisitely, and often excruciatingly, traces myriad personal and professional challenges experienced by protagonist Delphine—first as a youthful dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, then as a famous choreographer’s assistant in St. Petersburg, and then as guest choreographer back in Paris. On her return to the city of her birth, this daughter of a far more famous ballerina, long deceased, expects to easily slip back into the familiar habits she knew years. She is reunited with her closest friends—cynical and volatile lesbian dancer Margaux, keeper of the secret that could ruin their mutual friendship with the American dancer Lindsay, whose career Delphine intends to revive with the lead role in a ballet about Alexandra, the doomed Russian Tsarina. She also has hopes of renewed romance with star dancer Jock, the one who got away. While dealing with the struggles, rivalries, and demands of her working life, she suffers from a betrayal that threatens not only her career, but her privacy and her reputation. Delphine’s high expectations are thwarted. Her relationships with the ones whose support she relies upon are damaged, often by her own self-absorption, but also when she is victimized by the callous cruelty of another.


 The gender imbalance within the dance world, the physical and emotional toll as a dancer’s years advance, the difficulty of integrating the personal self with the professional demands are sharply observed and accurately, achingly depicted in each character. The setting for Delphine’s formative past in Paris, revealed through flashbacks, and her present traumas, is the city of a native, of a dancer, not the one encountered by tourists, and its depiction is evocatively true and real. The writing is beautiful, the people are believable, the insights are thought-provoking, and the conflicts ring all too true. Not to be missed. (St. Martin's Press, paperback/ebook/audiobook, 304 pp., 7 December 2021)




Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life by Gavin Larsen

 From a struggling but promising pupil to a professional ballet dancer whose career spanned nearly two decades, Gavin Larsen experienced the range of emotional and physical turmoil associated with a dancer’s existence. In energetic and expressive prose, she articulates the pains and pressures and pleasures that flow from commitment to her thoroughly demanding art. “Making a living being tired” accurately describes her sense of never feeling fully rested. Her search for the right place to perform takes her from the corps de ballet to soloist to principal, within a respected professional company, and later as a freelancer. Larsen’s tenacity and stamina shine through her depictions of the touring life and the quest for the next job search, inserting herself into daily class among strangers whose rituals and routines are unfamiliar. Every bourée forward is followed by one or two backwards, with dread of injury—career-halting or career-ending—always looming and seemingly inevitable. The frank and graphic account of ballet’s toll on the body, especially the toes, tendons, and ankles, makes real the agony behind the beauty seen onstage. Particular attention is given to the specifications and adaptions of pointe shoes and the mechanics and logistics involved in partnering and lifts. This is an admirable and extremely well-written memoir of a perceptive dancer’s artistic and professional challenges. (University Press of Florida, paperback/ebook, 272 pp. 27 April, 2021)



London’s Number One Dogwalking Agency: A Memoir

When Kate Macdougall’s latest and last costly mistake as a London auction house employee results in termination, she decides that a lifelong affection for canines is sufficient justification for setting up as an urban dog-walker—despite the fact that she hasn’t had a pet dog since childhood. So begins this delightfully witty and utterly immersive memoir of the travails and the joys in her quest for personal fulfillment and monetary sustenance.

In 2006, when she starts her business, dog-walking wasn’t actually a profession, a fact her divorcee mother will constantly point out. Alternating from certitude, ignorance, bravado, and doubt, Kate cobbles together a collection of clients even more idiosyncratic, demanding, and eccentric than their pampered pets. Her most sterling and useful characteristic is the ability understand of dogs as a species and as individuals with unique needs for exercise, companionship, discipline, and diet. Her fond acceptance of their habits, quirks, phobias, and preferences enables her to match them with appropriate members of her own staff, each of whom also presents certain eccentricities that must be coped with or dealt with.

An added complication is the dog owners, who in the main prove more difficult to handle than their precious but often neglected pets. Here, too, Kate eventually excels, through trial and error, resignation and resolve, keeping in mind the needs of the animal each time she confronts the difficult, demanding, and judgmental humans connected to them. Alert to class indicators, within her own broken family and those of her clients—the comfortable, the classy, the creepy—she not only matures, but earns insight into her own neediness and hopes for the future. She and her employees gamely navigate the city’s challenging geography and the intricacies of transportation logistics as her clientele expands. But just as her reputation seems assured, the financial collapse of 2009 and ensuing recession threaten her small measure of success with corporate ex-pat Americans and Londoners who abruptly decide that a dog walker is a luxury too far in hard times. It is then, amidst all the stress and panic, that her canine-averse fiancé suggests getting a dog of their own, an adventure in itself, and a first true test of their solidity as a couple and their readiness for marriage, parenthood, and an inevitable search for the ideal location in which to live.

This is a memoir about dogs—endearing and memorable and challenging ones—but it’s also very much about humans. How they relate to their pets and other people, their ease or difficulty in doing the right thing for themselves and their animals, how their good traits and bad ones are revealed through their interactions with the dogs and the dog-walkers. Not only is it beautifully, cleverly written, ultimately it is deeply moving memoir of overcoming struggles and finding identity and purpose in the life of a flawed but admirable young woman. (William Morrow, hardcover/ebook/audiobook, 6 July, 2021) 




You Belong Here Now, Dianna Rostad’s debut historical novel, offers a complex and nuanced portrait of home life, community values, and persistent struggles facing a Montana ranching family in the 1920s. Their challenges multiply with the arrival of three fugitives from an orphan train traveling from New York City: teenager Charles, Irish immigrant Patrick, and scrawny Opal, all of whom have been rejected as adoptees in the course of their cross-country journey. Nara Stewart, the fiercely independent female protagonist, is dubious about keeping--much less adopting--the orphans, but the need of farm labor overcomes her reluctance. Charles, burdened by a violent and possibly criminal past, grows into a determined protector, not only of his fellow orphans, but the family who can't fully trust him but strive to redeem him. The characters' varied internal and external conflicts are realistically portrayed, the period detail is skillfully blended, and the harsh land itself—its wild creatures and pervasive threats--are depicted with flair and faithfulness. Very highly recommended. (April 6, 2021, William Morrow Books, paperback, 368 pp.)



Gardening Hacks: 300+ Time and Money Saving Hacks by Jon VanZile

             In a well-organized collection of tips and hacks, Master Gardener Jon VanZile offers hundreds of time- and cost-saving suggestions for the indoor and outdoor garden. Workable and effective non-toxic and natural shortcuts are a valuable commodity, and this knowledge is creatively and systematically shared, numerically and through a searchable index. VanZile covers germination of seeds and propagation by cuttings, container plants, containers, care of tools, pest control, and collecting the harvest. Among the more interesting tips: using honey as a rooting hormone, seed starting in an ice cream cone (not the sugary kind), cinnamon as an anti-fungal treatment to protect seedlings from wilt, powdered milk as a calcium booster for tomatoes, and the myriad uses of coffee grounds.

            For some, the proposed outdoor decorations might go against personal aesthetics and allowable degree of whimsy in the garden—re-purposing broken and discarded objects into “funky displays” might not suit everyone’s style. But the wealth of advice presented is sound and safe, and the presentation style is readable and sincere. (Adams Media, paperback/ebook/audiobook, 256 pp., 6 April, 2021)






Rhapsody, Mitchell James Kaplan's third work of historical fiction, presents the long and challenging affair between pianist-composer Katharine Swift (Kay) Warburg and George Gershwin, her extramarital lover, soulmate, and collaborator. Their compelling story is revealed through evocative prose and lyrical imagery, peopled with literary and theatrical notables of the 1920s and 30s and replete with references to stage productions and compositions both obscure and renowned. Situations, settings, and dialogue bring to life the vibrant period between the world wars, one of innovation and exploration in music and popular entertainment, experienced atop a lofty pinnacle of wealth, talent, and emerging fame.

 Kay's permissive yet tortured marriage to financier and sometime lyricist James Warburg, and her detached mothering of three daughters is overshadowed by focused commitment to Gershwin and her determination to promote her own musical gifts. And while creativity—solitary and mutual—lies at the core of the emotional and relational arc, embedded within the novel is an examination of ethnic and cultural identity in America as totalitarianism begins its inexorable march across Europe.

Elegantly-attired characters emerge from exquisite New York apartments to attend elite social gatherings and explore Harlem jazz joints. They endure rehearsal agonies and celebrate opening nights. Throughout, Kaplan's skill and the lovers' looming fate propel the reader towards a poignant but inevitable conclusion. (March 2, Gallery Books, hardcover, 352 pp.)





Comedic and elegiac, farcical and tragic, complex and engrossing, Leslie Epstein’s Hill of Beans is an energetic and entertaining depiction of the symbiotic relationship between moviemaking and warmongering. This detailed and imaginative representation of Hollywood dynamics and military events, before and during World War II, is revealed through the minds and motives of multiple characters. The disparate witnesses are Abdul Maljan, ex-pugilist and masseuse to film mogul Jack Warner and President Roosevelt, Warner himself, the fictional half-Jewish German starlet he lures to Hollywood, the Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With the later addition, at the height of World War II, of Joseph Stalin and General George S. Patton. 

The connections between the film industry, politics, and war, are wittily and movingly drawn. The author’s uncles, twin screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein—Academy Award winners for Casablanca—would have loved this fictional version of their boss, the priapic punster Warner, their own antics, and the haphazard creation of their iconic film. (March 1, 2021, High Road Books, hardcover, 352 pp.)





London and the Seventeenth Century: The Making of the World's Greatest City

by Margarette Lincoln

     Relying on descriptive skill, contemporaneous accounts, and engaging insights, Margarette Lincoln presents the people, economies, concerns, and contradictions of seventeenth century London. In an era when church towers dominated the skyline, matters of faith and pursuits of the flesh drove the citizenry to foment rebellions and indulge in the innumerable pleasures available to them. James I, the first Stuart monarch, was succeeded by his second son Charles, whose death upon the scaffold brought the dynasty to a temporary conclusion. A detailed presentation of the volatile Interregnum, which its many contradictions of puritanical politics and economic thrust, is followed by the Restoration.

Like his father, the second Charles understood the imagery of kingship—as well as the high costs of rigidity and raising the displeasure of the populace. Coronation swag, one learns, is no new thing, neither is the royal interest in fostering positive and powerful imagery of kingship. Tested by years of exile, Charles confronted plague, fire, and wars, while many of his subjects sought entertainment in playhouses and coffee houses, and others pursued scientific investigations. The author devotes significant attention to the crucial shipping trade and the expansion of commerce to the Indies, East and West. His busy reign was succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother’s very brief one, and on the accession of his nephew and niece, William and Mary, Parliament’s power was reinforced, and the nation’s purse was directed to the Continental war, a preoccupation of the Dutch-born king. This monumental achievement in research and presentation brings to life a fascinating and extremely turbulent era in the life of this great and influential city. (February 23, 2021, Yale University Press, hardcover/ebook, 384 pp.)